Elon Musk and Axios

Axios represents wonderfully everything I hate about news media. I say something to that effect more often than typical and always feel the need to clarify a bit. Journalism is indispensable: Annie Lowrey’s new book on universal basic income is brilliant, historians put out spectacular books regularly, David Fahrenthold and Ronan Farrow expose graft and corruption in all walks. But so much of what poses as journalism is self-perpetuating, manipulative, pompous, and bankrupt of purpose.

Axios revels in the game of politics. The content of what a politician says, the depths of a substantial bill or order, are uninteresting. How will it affect the next election? Can he or she control the message? What’s the appropriate response? Flashes on the homepage come with invitations to “go deeper” as well as the length of the associated article: 168 words on the tax code’s decreased favorability for charitable giving, 86 words on climate change in the American Midwest, and 177 words on Trump’s deployment of troops on U.S. soil (their lack of hot food and water didn’t even merit the invitation or additional minuscule ‘depth’). A seventh-grade English teacher would require more for a book report.

Today Axios posted a video of an interview with Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX. The title: “Elon Musk: There’s a 70% chance that I personally go to Mars.” Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, founders of Axios, sit across from Musk, each with one leg crossed over the other, brows furrowed, and chins nestled in the crook between thumb and forefinger. They ask Musk for the odds that he’ll go to Mars personally and he responds without hesitation: 70%. They look on, serious-minded, as he says that he’s thinking about moving to Mars.

“Your probability of dying on Mars is much higher than Earth. Really the ad for going to Mars would be like Shackleton’s ad for going to the Antarctic. It’s gonna be hard. There’s a good chance of death, going in a little can through deep space. You might land successfully, once you land successfully you’ll be working nonstop to build the base. So, you know, not much time for leisure. And once you get there, even after doing all this, it’s a very harsh environment so there’s a good chance you’ll die there. We think you can come back but we’re not sure. Now, does that sound like an escape hatch for rich people?”

Thank you for the lecture.

After Musk’s in-depth explanation of the dangers of space travel, Allen asks if he’d still go. He replies that he would and goes on to justify that by stating that there are people who climb mountains even though climbers die on Everest: “They like doing it for the challenge.”

Musk would like us to know that travel to Mars is not for the faint-of-heart but that his heart is not faint. He would climb Everest had it not been done before. He would be on Shackleton’s boat was he born in the right century. But the self-aggrandizing clip serves Allen and VandeHei equally well. They can look hard into the eyes of an important man, sit over notebooks without filling the pages, hold expensive pens without writing, and make sober gestures with their hands as they ask simple questions.

Musk is powerful with tens of billions of dollars in accumulated wealth, but not without controversies, shortcomings, and serious lapses in judgment. He announced on Twitter that he was taking his company private for a huge per share markup but was reprimanded by the SEC after it was determined that his contentions, and subsequent defense of the statements, were completely false. His hyperloop project began in Hawthorne, California without notifying the residents under whose homes he would be boring a massive tunnel. He’s done fascinating things with Tesla but also gravely mismanaged the company in some ways and has been accused of safety issues by employees.

Many of his management problems stem from his public arrogance and mercurial temper. But even if Allen and Vandehei wanted to keep the interview positive, there were countless topics into which they could dive: bringing the electric car to scale or his hyperloop plans in Los Angeles and Chicago for example. Even a more focused discussion of his SpaceX mission might’ve been useful. Instead, they allowed Musk to play the adventurer, cocky and unafraid of death, and no one learned anything.

The only people who benefit from such an interview are those on camera. Musk gets to make grandiose pronouncements on camera and Allen and VandeHei get to look like journalists while he does. It’s self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating. Hours (maybe less) after the video posted, a google search of “Musk Mars” turned up the following results:

“Musk considers move to Mars despite ‘good chance of death’” (The Guardian)

“Elon Musk Denies that SpaceX’s Mars Colony Will Be a Ticket Out for the Rich” (Gizmodo)

“SpaceX CEO Elon Musk Sees 70% Chance He’ll Go To Mars” (RealClearPolitics)

Musk, VandeHei, and Allen are rocketing around the closed loop of the news media, each reaping from the attention what they seek. And all we learned is that space travel is dangerous and Elon Musk thinks highly of himself.

Peter Amosculture