A war of words being waged between an innovative car maker and The New York Times has just gotten uglier. This past Sunday, the Times gave major play to a scathing review of Tesla Motors' Model S battery-powered car titled "Stalled Out on Tesla's Electric Highway." The story, which was first posted online the previous Friday, fronted the paper's Automobiles section, and included a prominent photo of a Tesla being towed on a flatbed truck after running out of juice during reporter John M. Broder's East Coast road trip. As part of the conditions for loaning its vehicle for review, Tesla had directed Broder to strategically located charging stations along the way that should have made his journey a seamless pleasure; instead, Broder recounted a nightmare of a trip thanks to a car that kept falling fall short of expectations because its batteries, he made clear, simply couldn't hold a charge properly in cold weather.
On Monday, Tesla founder-CEO Elon Musk posted to Twitter:
NYTimes article about Tesla range in cold is fake. Vehicle logs tell true story that he didn't actually charge to max & took a long detour.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 11, 2013
Broder acknowledged the controversy and defended his review in a Tuesday "Wheels" blog post tiled "Charges Are Flying Over a Test of Tesla's Charging Network," while The Times called his coverage fair and accurate. The tech-blogosphere mostly sided with Tesla, however, and conspiracy theories -- e.g., accusations that Broder is in the pocket of Big Oil -- began to proliferate on the web.
Now, this morning, the blogosphere and Twitter are consumed with a fresh round of Times- and Broder-bashing, because late last night, in a post on Tesla's corporate blog, Musk made specific accusations, based on a detailed review of the vehicle's logs, that he says prove Broder "simply did not accurately capture what happened and worked very hard to force our car to stop running."
Among Musk's claims: "As the State of Charge log shows, the Model S battery never ran out of energy at any time, including when Broder called the flatbed truck." On the final leg of the trip, Musk says Broder "drove right past a public charge station while the car repeatedly warned him that it was very low on range." Also, "At the point in time that he claims to have turned the temperature down" -- to conserve battery charge -- "he in fact turned the temperature up to 74 F."
And perhaps most damningly, Musk says that when Broder "first reached our Milford, Connecticut Supercharger, having driven the car hard and after taking an unplanned detour through downtown Manhattan to give his brother a ride, the display said '0 miles remaining.' Instead of plugging in the car, he drove in circles for over half a mile in a tiny, 100-space parking lot. When the Model S valiantly refused to die, he eventually plugged it in."
If Tesla's claims are correct, it would be a major embarrassment for the paper. Broder is not some recently-acquired freelancer but a correspondent for the Washington bureau since 2006 who joined The Times back in 1996, covering everything along the way from the White House to energy and the environment.
A Times spokeswoman reiterated to Ad Age today that Broder's report was fair and accurate, but that a more detailed response is forthcoming, probably later today.
UPDATE: Check out Rebecca Greenfield's take on this controversy over at The Atlantic Wire: Elon Musk's Data Doesn't Back Up His Claims of New York Times Fakery.
SECOND UPDATE: Broder has responded to Tesla, writing that the car company knew in advance of his trip through Manhattan (and that he did not go "downtown"); that he only drove in that parking lot until he could find the Tesla Supercharger, "which is not prominently marked"; that Tesla had jumped to conclusions about when he said he lowered the cabin temperature. See all the details of his response.
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.
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