One of our most heavily trafficked stories of the week was Diego Doval’s extensive and extraordinarily well written take-down of the New York Times’ wild weekend claims about data centers.
But the New York Times — and a lot of East Coast media — has a long history of counting Silicon Valley and technology out. Fresh in my mind as I read Doval’s piece was Randall Stross’s strange hit piece on Tesla back in 2008. It went off on the government for giving bailout money to a company that was only making cars for rich people, a persuasive argument that had real implications for the company at its weakest moment.
Unfortunately, Stross’s piece got two details wrong. The first is that the history of technology is littered with examples of breakthroughs that start out expensive to cover the R&D costs, and then get cheaper over time as the technology improves and those upfront costs are absorbed. Elon Musk was already proving this with the Model S, which featured a substantial price cut from the luxury Roadster. And the loans were for the development of that less expensive model, not the Roadster. The piece was later corrected, but not before serious reputational damage had been done to Tesla.
Worse, the premise of Stross’s gripe was hugely misleading. He referred to it as a government “bailout” of Tesla’s high net worth investors — a loaded argument given the climate and bailout of industry after industry at the time. But Tesla wasn’t getting government bailout money, like banks and Detroit automakers were. Tesla was getting a low-interest loan to encourage more sustainable auto development — a completely different program that had been in place long before the bailouts began. Attacking a small innovator trying to solve a major global problem, as the government bailed out giants who’d lost their way, was strange to most Valley readers, to say the least.
But Doval found an even more extreme example from the NYT archives. Back in 1920, the paper trashed the research of Robert Goddard and his claim that rockets could function in the vacuum of space. It snarked:
That Professor Goddard, with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react — to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.
Meeeee-ow! It only took the Times some 50 years to issue this correction the day after Apollo 11 launched, and the rocket continued to surge into space, instead of, say, crossing the earth’s atmosphere and then just stopping.
Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.
Better late than never, I guess. Let’s hope it doesn’t take the Times 50 years to address the mounting concerns over its reporting on data centers.
[Image courtesy Wikimedia]