Public Editor Slams NY Times Tesla Story, After Overcoming ‘Confirmation Bias’

February 22, 2013   ·   2 Comments

Source: Think Progress


By Joe Romm:

The verdict would appear to be in on the great road rage (range rage?) feud of 2013.

Elon Musk, the CEO of electric vehicle maker Tesla, may not have done himself any favorspicking a fight with NY Times reporter John Broder after his scathing review, “Stalled Out on Tesla’s Electric Highway.”

But it tells you something when, after extensive research, the NYT public editor criticizes the story, especially using the headline, “Problems With Precision and Judgment, but Not Integrity, in Tesla Test.”

I haven’t weighed in before for two reasons. First, I’m with those who think pure electrics really shouldn’t be trying to compete in the “long, fast road trip” category. As Rocky Mountain Institute put it:

… this much ado about range anxiety is a distraction from the real sweet spot and potential of EVs today. U.S. drivers average 13,476 miles per year; that’s 37 miles per day, according to the Office of Highway Policy Information. The most recent National Household Travel Survey by DOT’s Federal Highway Administration puts that number even lower—a scant 29 vehicle miles per day, with an average trip length less than 10 miles.

Second, to be fair to all parties, I’d have to talk to a bunch of folks like, say, “Mr. Broder, Mr. Musk, two key Tesla employees, other Times journalists, the tow-truck driver and his dispatcher, and a Tesla owner in California, among others.”

Public Editor Margaret Sullivan did just that, of course, and while you might think she has a bias in favor of the reporter, she makes a remarkable admission:

I’ve also had a number of talks with my brother, a physician, car aficionado and Tesla fan, who has helped me balance what might have been a tendency to unconsciously side with a seasoned and respected journalist – my own “confirmation bias.”

How rare for any major journalist to acknowledge any such bias. Sullivan’s bottom line on Broder’s reporting is:

Did he use good judgment along the way? Not especially. In particular, decisions he made at a crucial juncture – when he recharged the Model S in Norwich, Conn., a stop forced by the unexpected loss of charge overnight – were certainly instrumental in this saga’s high-drama ending.

In addition, Mr. Broder left himself open to valid criticism by taking what seem to be casual and imprecise notes along the journey, unaware that his every move was being monitored. A little red notebook in the front seat is no match for digitally recorded driving logs, which Mr. Musk has used, in the most damaging (and sometimes quite misleading) ways possible, as he defended his vehicle’s reputation.

Sullivan quotes a long comment (reprinted below) from a NYT reader — “Roger Wilson of Falls Church, Va., a Model S owner himself” — of which she says:

My own findings are not dissimilar to the reader I quote … although I do not believe Mr. Broder hoped the drive would end badly. I am convinced that he took on the test drive in good faith, and told the story as he experienced it.

For those who have been following this story closely, the full comment is worth a read:

“In his article (and follow-ups), Mr. Broder states that he followed Tesla’s advice during his drive. But, if he had taken time to read the owner’s manual beforehand (which, at 30-or-so well-written pages, would have taken an hour), he would have known about:

• “The ‘Max Range’ setting, which would have charged the battery beyond the ‘standard’ range and given him 20-30 miles more range;
• “The ‘Range Mode’ setting, which would have conserved battery during the drive;
• “The section entitled ‘Driving Tips for Maximum Range’;
• “And, the concept of plugging the vehicle in (especially during his overnight stop): ‘Tesla strongly recommends leaving Model S plugged in when not in use.’ and ‘The most important way to preserve the Battery is to LEAVE YOUR MODEL S PLUGGED IN when you’re not using it.’

“Had he employed at least one of these tidbits, he probably wouldn’t have been ‘stalled’ on the EV highway. But, then again, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting a story if he made the trip successfully (and could have only complained about the inconveniences of staying at the charging station longer than he cared to or having to plug in the car overnight).

“In follow-ups, he claims that he was only ‘testing’ the supercharger network. If this had been the case, the story wouldn’t have focused on him driving 45 m.p.h. and being cold (and the infamous picture of the Tesla on the flatbed), but would have simply stated that the two current supercharger stations (which just opened recently) are too far apart and that one might have to rely on non-Tesla public charging stations until more supercharger stations are installed.

“Unlike Mr. Musk, I don’t claim that Mr. Broder ‘faked’ the story, but he certainly didn’t seem to employ the least bit of care or responsibility in fuel management (required of any vehicle, regardless of fuel type). One can only assume that Mr. Broder’s irresponsibility in fuel management was in hope that something beyond ‘inconvenience’ would happen to make the story more interesting. (Otherwise, no one, including me, would have paid much attention to his article.)

“Tesla is not faultless in this, especially since it suggested the test drive. Tesla should have made it very clear that the 200-mile stretch between the two supercharger stations approaches the maximum distance and that all range maximization strategies should be employed.”

Tesla Model S won the 2013 Motor Trend Car of the Year in November 12, with a unanimous vote from the panel of judges. And, RMI notes, “other media outlets—including CNN—have successfully completed the D.C.-to-Boston drive in a Model S with barely a fraction of the issues Broder encountered.” That said, if you like long, quick road trips, you might want to go with a different (or second) car.

But if it’s in your price range, you should take a spin in the Model S!


Readers Comments (2)

  1. Roberta Mason says:

    I don’t think Sullivan is going to have a long tenure at the NYT. She is too honest and willing to question coverage. The person in her position is supposed to be a lap dog as Brisbane was.

  2. Ormond Otvos says:

    As a technician and long-time electric vehicle aficionado, I’d say both Broder and Musk are bending the driver reality quite a bit.

    The simple fact is that electric car batteries take too long to recharge. Add the high price and range anxiety, and Broder’s story nails it.

    He was unprofessional to sell the story as a gotcha, though.

    Musk bent the realities in the other direction. Better to have announced a crash program than to carefully tiptoe around range realities.

    The good part is the long page of screamingly positive customer reviews of the other aspects of the car that followed Musk’s comments.

    Kudos to the public editor!


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