Billionaires: they’re just like us! At least, that’s what the New York Times wants you to believe. After publishing a highly sympathetic profile of beleaguered Tesla CEO Elon Musk last week, one of the authors of that piece, David Gelles, has now written a behind-the-scenes look at his interview with Musk. The new article reveals just how deeply Gelles empathized with Musk during their conversation. “[The interview] was a reminder that despite all their efforts to make the public believe otherwise, CEOs have feelings, too,” Gelles concluded.
In his piece, Gelles contrasts Musk’s emotionality over the phone with the mechanical interviews given by most high-profile CEOs. Unsurprisingly, the heads of most major companies are trained comprehensively in how to talk to the media, and are careful to avoid using language that could jeopardize their businesses. Musk, according to Gelles, threw out that playbook. Instead of giving rote answers, he spoke at length about the personal pain he’s experienced as his company has failed to meet production deadlines and he’s had to cut down on sleep and time with his family. “This past year has been the most difficult and painful year of my career,” Musk told Gelles. “It was excruciating.”
A major tech CEO tweeting himself into legal trouble is certainly news. Similarly, his fragile mental state is noteworthy insofar as it could affect his business and its employees. But the framing of Gelles’ pieces depicts Musk as a character worthy of our empathy. And though it’s true that Musk is a human being who experiences sadness, pain, and fear like the rest of us, it’s far more important for the purposes of journalism that he’s an incredibly rich and influential businessman whose decisions impact thousands of people’s lives.
Journalism should first and foremost hold powerful people accountable. Like the #resistance craze for honoring senator and war hawk John McCain, there is something deeply perverse about a journalist dedicating his time to praising the “vulnerability” of the executives he is supposed to be investigating.
If Musk’s emotional instability is leading to layoffs and injuries, that’s a story we need to hear about. That it’s also making him sad is a side note, at most. I’m sure Musk was in emotional pain when he tweeted disparagingly about the investigative journalists from Reveal who catalogued how Tesla covered up workplace injuries—but who cares?
If you need a reminder, Reveal’s report alleged that the worker injuries at Tesla—for which the company is under investigation by OSHA—were a direct result of Musk’s preferences about the aesthetics of his factory, and his focus on production speed. Multiple employees blamed Musk directly for the dangerous conditions (he reportedly hated seeing the color yellow in the space, which ruled out most safety signs).
Reveal spoke to dozens of workers who were injured at the Tesla factory, including those who developed severe headaches from adhesive fumes, repetitive stress injuries, and fainted from overheating. Some of the injuries had lasting effects. One worker, Dennis Cruz, was forced to live in his car because he couldn’t afford rent on worker’s compensation from tendonitis. Things got worse from there, Reveal reported:
[In] late 2016, a toxic adhesive many workers complain about got in his eye, damaging his cornea. And in September, as a quality inspector, Cruz says he put out a fire that broke out on a car body, inhaling fumes from burning chemicals.
Cruz, 42, is on light duty as he struggles with shortness of breath, coughing spells and headaches. But he wants to provide for his family, apply his skills and get promoted.
“I can’t do that on workers’ comp. I can’t do that away from the factory,” he said. “That’s why I push to go back. I push to go back into the fire.”
In response, Tesla dismissed the allegations and referred to Reveal, a highly respected non-profit journalistic outlet, as a pro-union “extremist organization working directly with union supporters to create a calculated disinformation campaign against Tesla.”
Things haven’t always been easy for Musk. His dad is a movie-level villain who had a child with his own stepdaughter, one of Musk’s children died soon after birth, and his companies have faced countless setbacks (though many of them were self-inflicted). But if Elon Musk has a bad day, he might have to take some more Ambien, sleep on his office floor, or miss his birthday. Worst case scenario, if he lost his companies, he’d still have many times more money than 99.9 percent of the population for the rest of his life. The same can’t be said for workers like Cruz, who have already faced serious injury and homelessness due to Musk’s reported decisions. As long as he willingly subjects people to these kinds of abhorrent conditions, I couldn’t give a fuck how Musk feels.
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