The persistence of bad reporting and the reluctance of people to criticize it

Mark Palko pointed to a bit of puff-piece journalism on the tech entrepreneur Elon Musk that was so extreme that it read as a possible parody, and I wrote, “it could just be as simple as that [author Neil] Strauss decided that a pure puff piece would give him access to write a future Musk bio.”

I then continued:

Here’s another angle on the whole Musk hype thing. Consider all the journalists and commentators out there who are not in the pay of Musk and do not harbor ambitions to write a book about the guy. Why don’t they go mock Neil Strauss for this article?

One reason, perhaps, is a mixture of vague hope of Musk dollars, mixed with vague fear of Musk dollars. Even if you’re not directly planning to get any Musk funding, and even if you’re not directly afraid that Musk would personally retaliate against you if you criticize him, still, it might seem “better safe than sorry” to just not bother to publicize any negative views you might have, regarding the Musk phenomenon. Not that Musk would pull a Peter Thiel and try to put you out of business—but what’s the point of tempting fate?

In addition to all that, you might feel that Musk is on the side of good. If you’re politically conservative, Musk represents all the good things of self-made businessmen; if you’re politically liberal, Musk represents a socially-conscious, zero-emissions future; or you just might think Musk is cool. So, sure, there’s some hype, you might think, but why go after Musk, who is such a force for good?

Is it good for Musk to have all this barely-contested hype? It’s hard to say. It’s got to be a loss to be able to dodge serious criticism—after all, the laws of physics will not be as gentle as the NY and LA press. On the other hand, it could be that all the hype could allow Musk to say afloat financially long enough for him to achieve whatever goals he has that are technically possible.

My point here is to go one step “meta” on the discussion, and ask, not just why is this journalist shilling for Musk, but also why are all the other journalists, bloggers, etc., not blowing this particular gaff?

A similar question could be asked about pro-Soviet hype in the 1960s, for example this notorious graph from Paul Samuelson’s famous textbook. We can ask not just, How did Samuelson get it so wrong?, but also, why did other members of the economics profession not criticize Samuelson more for this mistake? In this case, I doubt it was fear of the Russians, but it might well have been a mixture of (a) not wanting to slam Samuelson, who was, it seems, nearly universally beloved by his colleagues, (b) not wanting to reduce the credibility of economics more generally by pointing out an embarrassing flaw in the most famous textbook in the field, (c) not wanting to draw attention to leftist sympathies in academia, and (d) not wanting to draw attention to the economic failings of socialism. Items (c) and (d) are hardly secrets; still, maybe people felt no need to gratuitously remind people.

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