The media is out to take down Elon Musk, and last week they demonstrated how low they’re willing to go. Here’s why Americans must draw a line in the sand and show zero tolerance for the media’s dishonest and puerile agenda.
Media sleaze is like a virulent cancer. It begins with a small tumor that appears in a publication staffed by amateurs and wannabes and then fast metastasizes through the journalism bleachers and emerges as Stage 4 cancer in major legacy publications. Eventually some prominent person is taken down and journalists applaud themselves for a job well done.
The bigger and whiter the fish, the prouder they are.
Musk’s media tumor
Musk’s media tumor surfaced a few weeks ago with a despicable story in an online clickbait publication called Insider that I suspect is paying Google a pretty penny to have its rancid journalism pollute my news feed. As Insider’s financial sustenance is heavily dependent on clicks, I’m not going to link to its Musk trash but I’m happy to note the disgraceful story was proudly reported “for quite some time” by an “investigative journalist” named Rich McHugh.
McHugh found, or more likely was handed on a silver platter, a declaration signed by a “friend” of a flight attendant who worked on the SpaceX corporate jet. The “friend,” who McHugh didn’t identify, said the flight attendant routinely and willingly provided Musk with massages. The flight attendant told her “friend” that Musk on a flight to London once asked her to “do more” and that after she reported the incident, she felt her opportunities at SpaceX were limited. The flight attendant hired an employment lawyer who negotiated a $250,000 severance agreement.
Relying on the second-hand representations of a supposed friend who had no independent verification that what she was told was 100 percent accurate is bottom-of-the-barrel journalism. Musk told Insider there is “a lot more to this story.” I suspect the flight attendant’s $250,000 severance agreement came with a nondisclosure clause, so Musk and the flight attendant are likely prohibited from sharing their sides of the story.
The Insider story was quickly picked up by the legacy media, including People, which I mistakenly thought went out of business years ago. I learned of massage allegations reading the daily DealBook newsletter put out by the New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin, which promoted the Insider story as a “bombshell.”
Stage 2 Media Cancer
As I expected, the media wasn’t prepared to let the Insider story remain dormant.
The Verge, a technology publication owned by Vox Media, on Thursday weighed in with this disgraceful story authored by Loren Grush whose bio says she’s the daughter of two NASA engineers and specializes in “all things space.” I’ve linked to the story because it offers some valuable lessons in how journalists can peddle as “news” something that clearly isn’t.
Grush reported that an “open letter to SpaceX” was circulating among employees decrying Elon Musk’s behavior. Here’s Grush in her own words.
The letter, reviewed by The Verge, describes how Musk’s actions and the recent allegations of sexual harassment against him are negatively affecting SpaceX’s reputation. The document claims that employees “across the spectra of gender, ethnicity, seniority, and technical roles have collaborated on” writing the letter. It’s not known which SpaceX employees wrote the letter; the employees who posted the letter in the internal chat system have not responded to requests for comment.
Elon’s behavior in the public sphere is a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment for us, particularly in recent weeks,” the letter states. “As our CEO and most prominent spokesperson, Elon is seen as the face of SpaceX — every Tweet that Elon sends is a de facto public statement by the company. It is critical to make clear to our teams and to our potential talent pool that his messaging does not reflect our work, our mission, or our values.
Grush admitted that the number of employees who signed the letter “wasn’t immediately available.” She went on to tout her previous work reporting that five SpaceX employees alleged their complaints about sexual harassment weren’t taken seriously.
Grush’s story seemingly validated the importance of the Musk letter and no doubt she hoped that it would encourage employees to sign it, thereby giving her another big exclusive. Among the journalists who followed Grush’s “scoop” was Ryan Mac of the New York Times and Micah Maidenberg of the Wall Street Journal.
SpaceX’s corporate oncologist
In an impressive display of decisive leadership rarely seen these days involving employee matters, SpaceX president and COO Gwynee Shotwell quickly identified the authors of the letter criticizing Musk’s leadership and fired them. Shotwell dispensed with the normal management genuflecting to employees about SpaceX’s commitment to “inclusion” and “listening and understanding” and was quite blunt in an email to employees that found its way to the media.
Shotwell’s email, which seemingly was leaked to any reporter that wanted it, was republished in its entirety by the The Verge. It should serve as a template for CEOs who want to demonstrate unequivocal leadership and messaging.
You may have received an unsolicited request from a small group of SpaceX employees
for your signature on an “open letter” yesterday and your participation in a
related survey. Based on diverse employee feedback, this has upset many. That
is, the letter, solicitations and general process made employees feel
uncomfortable, intimidated and bullied, and/or angry because the letter
pressured them to sign onto something that did not reflect their views.
Employees also complained that it interfered with their ability to focus on and
do their work. We have 3 launches within 37 hours for critical satellites this
weekend, we have to support the astronauts we delivered to the ISS and get
cargo Dragon back to the flight-ready, and after receiving environmental
approval early this week, we are on the cusp of the first orbital launch
attempt of Starship. We have too much critical work to accomplish and no need
for this kind of overreaching activism — our current leadership team is more
dedicated to ensuring we have a great and ever-improving work environment than
any I have seen in my 35-year career.
We solicit and expect our employees to report all concerns to their leadership,
senior management, HR, or Legal. But blanketing thousands of people across the
company with repeated unsolicited emails and asking them to sign letters and
fill out unsponsored surveys during the work day is not acceptable, goes
against our documented handbook policy, and does not show the strong judgement
needed to work in this very challenging space transportation sector. We
performed an investigation and have terminated a number of employees involved.
I am sorry for this distraction. Please stay focused on the SpaceX mission, and
use your time at work to do your best work. This is how we will get to Mars.
The Journal’s Micah Maidenberg was only able to confirm that two employees were fired, but CNBC put the number at five. Not one journalist identified any of the employees who circulated the Musk letter, either because they were covering for them, or they weren’t all that diligent. Shotwell’s bold leadership was lost on Maidenberg; instead, he interviewed employment lawyers to identify possible avenues to challenge their terminations.
Consider this: Five employees of unknown accomplishment or seniority took it upon themselves to circulate a letter that reporters were unaware how much internal support it had and yet the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal chose to treat it as significant news, even after getting scooped.
‘Unpacking’ more trash
Rest assured the media isn’t embarrassed or humbled by the SpaceX letter experience. In fact, Grush remains undaunted.
On Friday Grush published this story claiming that more than 400 employees had agreed to sign the Musk letter. Although Grush’s sourcing for the information is unclear, she said she spoke with one of the crafters of the letter who insisted that “a large number of employees across a bunch of demographics and roles and levels helped” write it. Grush didn’t identify the employee or reference whether they were among those who were fired. The Verge Friday also published this story saying the SpaceX firings likely violated labor laws.
In due course, some publication will find some anonymous women who after “unpacking” their previous experiences with Musk will say they felt disrespected or suffered some other perceived grievance. There’s no statute of limitations on this stuff. But as the public learned from the recent Johnny Depp defamation trial, there’s two sides to every story.
The tragedy of David Sabatini
The website Common Sense recently posted a story about the career destruction of Dr. David Sabitini that I argued should have served as a Rosa Parks moment challenging the cancer of cancel culture. Sabitini was a world-renowned scientist widely expected to win a Nobel Prize for his research on a cure for cancer. Sabitini’s career was derailed after a former colleague who he slept with multiple times had second thoughts about the relationship. Common Sense persuasively reported that Sabitini was unfairly railroaded, but he’s nevertheless unemployable in the U.S. despite his genius and his possible ability to save millions of lives.
This paragraph from the Common Sense article resonated with me:
Sabatini spends his days shuffling around, watching Netflix, caring for his 11-year-old son and taking calls from lawyers. He got some job offers, from China, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates—PLACES THAT DON’T CARE ABOUT THE THINGS HE’S ACCUSED OF (emphasis mine).
America’s ability to compete in the world is considerably diminished if we’re going to allow a dishonest media to sabotage the work of our greatest minds. There’s much to criticize, investigate, and dislike about Elon Musk, but allegations from unknown people that he possibly once asked for a massage “extra” isn’t one of them. Sexual harassment complaints must be taken seriously, but conflating them with Musk’s massage allegations undermines them, particularly since SpaceX’s Shotwell previously told employees that she didn’t believe the massage allegations.
Shotwell’s bold and decisive leadership should be celebrated. It’s tragic that Sabitini wasn’t employed by a leader of comparable courage, focus, and determination.
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