When journalism becomes shilling

Was Tesla’s 10-minute test drive media manipulation, or just circumstance?

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- George Orwell said, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.”

So what does it mean when a car company carefully orchestrates the media launch of a new vehicle and limits media test drives of that vehicle to just 10 minutes on a controlled circuit?

Are members of the business and automotive press complicit in the company’s public relations effort? Or is it simply a matter of circumstance that doesn’t allow for a more thorough evaluation of a brand-new vehicle?

I wrestled with these questions as I began writing my review of Tesla Motors’ just-off-the-line Model S electric vehicle. Is it possible to give a wholly accurate analysis of a new product from a few short blocks of driving? Not really, just like a movie cannot be reviewed by watching the trailer.

Tesla marked the beginning of Model S deliveries to customers on Friday at its assembly plant in Fremont, Calif., and offered media a chance to drive the car.

These units were the first retail-ready vehicles off the assembly line that week. The company has received scads of driving requests from thousands of global media representatives -- some from persons large and important, more from those who just think they are. There was no way Tesla could accommodate all those requests.

So Tesla did the best it could. It sent invites out to journalists it felt could best disseminate the Tesla story, acknowledging that the test drive was abbreviated.

Some of those not invited turned it into a screed about how Tesla only invited journalists who would write niceties. Or alleging, without any factual backup, that Tesla was hiding something more sinister -- that its claimed 230-mile battery range was a falsehood.

In reality, there were at least 100 journalists from around the world, along with dozens of camera crews. It was pretty much the A-list. Sure, some have been soft on the startup automaker, but many in attendance have whacked Tesla on the nose with the rolled-up newspaper of integrity.

Did Tesla manipulate the media by limiting seat time? Of course. Conversely, when Fisker Automotive gave the press an entire day in its just-completed Karma hybrid, it opened itself up to more thorough dissection. Things you would never notice in 10 minutes -- the Karma’s thrashy driveline, gaping interior panel gaps and claustrophobic back seat -- became readily apparent over the course of a day.

So, as of today, no one outside of Tesla knows if the Model S can actually achieve its vaunted mileage claims that are at least double that of any other electric vehicle. They just know it’s pretty damn quick and corners flatter than roadkill.

Tesla’s parade of interviews, a brief audience with its charismatic CEO, and a short test drive given to a few select journalists is no different a tactic than what Lamborghini does. It’s just smart PR, a company doing its job of getting the best press it can.

To me, it is more galling when publications that attended the introduction do not give full disclosure. Throwing banner headlines proclaiming “Exclusive First Drive!!!” as a manner of self-promotion is garishly inaccurate -- first because dozens of journalists were given first crack at the car on the same day, and second because it carries a promise of analysis that cannot be factually delivered.

When a publication’s self promotion falls in line with the publicity effort of a company the publication is supposed to be covering objectively, that’s when the integrity of the coverage must be called into question.

A proper review of the Model S likely will come in a few weeks or months when one of the first owners allows a publication access to properly evaluate the vehicle. This was a teaser. It should be reported as such.

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