A style guide for writing about the rich

For use in all publications

Donald Borenstein
Feb 7, 2018 · 10 min read
what a lame-ass nerd (getty images via cnbc)

HOW TO WRITE ABOUT THE RICH (see below for explanation)

1: Do not broadly attribute a company’s work to their owner/CEO.
2: It is always relevant to note how people have accumulated wealth, and who they have harmed to do so. Never omit it.
3: Be skeptical and don’t just publish a wealthy person’s claims or without doing due diligence or offering a critical corollary.
4: Don’t trip over yourself to humanize a rich person and make them look good — you’re a journalist, not a PR person.
5: Don’t let it all be about them.
6: It’s not fucking news if a rich person likes Rick and Morty or whatever.
7: If you’re writing from a place of personal perspective, you should write about them with the same bilious contempt they have for human life.

Today, the news is dominated by Elon Musk running victory laps after the successful launch of the most powerful rocket since the Space Shuttle. The launch — an admittedly impressive technical achievement that can be more accurately attributed to years of hard work by engineers and scientists rather than the whims of a rich, bored douchebag — has naturally inspired quite a degree of excitement.

Most importantly, this is a prime opportunity for the media hivemind to engage in one of their favorite pastimes: gushing breathlessly about the antics of Elon Musk. Indeed, if you look at the past couple years of coverage of Musk, all the well-researched critical journalism is overshadowed by people tripping over themselves to have the most shared article singing his praises, all while broadly attributing SpaceX’s work to one person: himself.

This is ostensibly a piece of hard journalism on the launch by CNBC, but it seems far more interested in Musk than in the actual launch, and regurgitates his grandiose claims about the potential scope of his work without any scientific context or rebuttal:

Musk said he personally inspected the landed boosters, adding that SpaceX could even reuse them if it wanted. Even after seeing the results of the launch, Musk said he was having difficulty comprehending the magnitude of the flight, saying it was surreal for him to see such success.

“It can launch things direct to Pluto and beyond. Don’t even need gravity assist or anything,” Musk said. “You can go back to the moon.”

He estimated the total SpaceX investment was over $500 million dollars to develop Falcon Heavy. Musk noted those funds were “all internal,” and not from taxpayers or fundraising.

This, to be clear, is not adequate journalism: it is accidental PR, giving Musk a platform for his claims to be presented without scrutiny. It would take comparatively minimal effort to link to public documents that proved or disproved his claim that SpaceX used no public funding, or to note that evidence could not be found to prove the claim either way.

The way we smooth over our grossly unequal reality is deeply dehumanizing, down to the fundamental way in which this has been described in the news almost singularly as Musk’s achievement. But it isn’t always such a blatant process — sometimes, its as simple as Bloomberg’s (via TIME) choice to describe onlookers for a major rocket launch as Musk’s “fans”, rather than people interested in one of the most American of all pastimes: watching a big thing blow up and/or go fast.

The phenomenon is far more pronounced once you pass into the realm of opinions writing — which, it should be noted, is often treated in the popular eye with a level of disproportionate authority. One post in particular, “Elon Musk Does it Again” from Scientific American, is so effusive in its praise that it recalls shades of the infamous Pitchfork Kid A review:

Earlier today, our sun gained a new satellite, courtesy of SpaceX’s first test launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket: A cherry-red Tesla Roadster once driven by SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, blasting tunes from David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” with a spacesuit-clad “Star Man” dummy strapped in the driver’s seat. On the dashboard display as it hurtled into the void? “Don’t Panic,” the tagline from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Launched with an earth-shaking roar from Pad 39a at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida — the same launch site of the Apollo 11 lunar mission in 1969 and the first space shuttle flight in 1981 — the Roadster was boosted onto an interplanetary trajectory that takes it looping between the orbital vicinities of Earth and of Mars. It is neither the first car nor even the first electric model ever launched into space (the Apollo-era lunar rovers take both of those prizes). But it is certainly the fastest, approaching a speed of 12 kilometers per second relative to Earth when it separated from the Falcon Heavy’s payload fairing en route to deep space.

While this may be effectively a blog post, it’s still pretty demoralizing to see this lack of scrutiny in the esteemed Scientific American. The writer is tripping over himself to praise a wealthy man, and it’s hard to take anything else he says seriously as a result.

This dynamic has followed Musk everywhere — it is difficult to find a similarly wealthy person whose ratio of positive to negative press is as grossly imbalanced as his. If you feel a need to delve further into this phenomenon, the search “Elon Musk saves world” comes up with a pretty upsetting number of results. While many of those do indeed apply necessary skepticism to his lofty claims, many of them take it at face value.

Are you fucking kidding me

Unfortunately, there’s a problem with reporting about the rich in such a lighthearted and non-confrontational manner. Musk and his ilk are modern-day robber-barons whose wealth comes at an immense human cost. As such, humanizing them effectively acts as free PR — a counter-narrative to the violence of their wealth. This is a fundamental abdication of journalistic duty, one which allows the wealthiest, most powerful people alive to spout their narrative in many cases with limited-to-no pushback.

Strangely, Musk is far more broadly popular than most billionaires. It’s understandable to a degree: Musk is the deeply unfunny Reddit nerd we all know and loathe. Musk has a vocal interest in popular items of “nerd culture” , makes grandiose-and-baseless statements about a vague desire to elevate the quality of life in the world, and lobs weak jokes on social media with the prowess of a 27 year old who thinks they can Tweet their way out of the seemingly endless banality of their own life. He’s just like us! As a result, media outlets at all levels of renown have reported on tiny details of his personal life, making his interest in Rick and Morty somehow newsworthy.

But really, he isn’t, because again: he now has enough money to single-handedly end homelessness in the United States.

There’s a lot I can get into here about how Musk is a union-busting, worker-abusing, tax-evading, grossly negligent financier whose pet projects are draining funding and talent for actual infrastructure improvement and scientific development. If you’re writing about Musk or any other billionaire, it is always relevant to note how people have accumulated wealth, and who they have harmed to do so.

But even if Musk was, by all accounts, a paragon of a good person who followed the letter of the law, he’d still be scum. Elon Musk is one of the fraction of a percent of people with the material wealth and power to impose near-instant improvement in people’s lives, and chooses to use his astonishing wealth to… generate more wealth and pursue his pet projects. Moreover, to get to Musk’s level of wealth, a person must do unspeakably evil things.

You can’t reach such wealth without actively denying someone else the right to an even minimally decent existence. Whether it’s cutting corners, mistreating workers, bulldozing affordable housing and wildlife, or simply the banal evil of pursuing capital for its own sake, at a certain point you can’t explain it away. Musk’s pursuit of capital has cost people their homes, their jobs, their health, and their lives. He knows this, and he has continued — accelerated, even. It is the same choice every rich person makes.

As such, Musk’s fundamental contempt is laid bare: he has the capacity to do good, and actively chooses not to. It is astounding to me that such contempt is not immediately transparent to everyone else — which makes it all the more frustrating that people generally do not write or talk about Musk with such vitriol accordingly.

In spite of this, Musk is generally considered to be altruistic in spite of the fact that he doesn’t indulge in the same kind of performative, manipulative philanthropy efforts in the way people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have. His appeal comes from his admittedly lofty ambitions to change the world — in his image.

Elon Musk strives to impose his very narrow view of the future on the world writ large, his story of the future is invariably all about himself and his own ventures. Musk has crafted his rhetoric around SpaceX to paint his company as the only hope for space travel — as the company that will take humanity to Mars.

Thanks to a combination of the economic downturn and Bush administration cuts to NASA that ended the shuttle program, Musk has strived to paint SpaceX as a de facto private replacement for NASA. Ownership of space is impossible, but Musk aims for the next best thing: control over access and resources. In stoking public excitement, Musk doesn’t aspire to raise humanity — he aspires to attract investors. SpaceX is, as such, effectively a very boring supervillain’s plot.

Unfortunately a good deal of people fall for Musk’s egocentric view of progress, and it’s hard to blame people who bite: everyone wants to believe improvement is tangible, easy, and inevitable — Musk offers this in the form of a convenient narrative that paints him as an iconoclast pushing for the future, rather than as a petty oligarch cashing in on an untapped market.

The weird, perverse phenomenon of admiration this inspires is best seen here, in an infographic slavishly devoted to singing his praises in documenting his life and work. Unintentionally, this infographic ends up being the most damning possible indictment of Musk, as it speculates on the future Musk envisions for himself (and the World, by extension): the peak of imagination for Musk and his acolytes is to see trips to Mars become an attainable luxury, a “mere” $200,000.

via https://blog.adioma.com/how-elon-musk-started-infographic/

This, of course, isn’t intended as some unrealistic statement that space travel isn’t costly — it is instead a condemnation of priorities. Musk’s end game here is to be the first person to space simply so he can own that market. You can see a similar phenomenon in any supposedly altruistic venture by these oligarchs: the best example, the Gates foundation, has become one of the most powerful non-state actors in the world by wielding so much money as to redefine international aid, and to make it inseparable from themselves and their whims.

To bring this back to what this piece is ostensibly about, a CNN opinion piece titled “Elon Musk just launched our Breathtaking New Adventure” drives this point home in the vision of the future they paint:

“Red car for red planet” is what Elon Musk tweeted several months ago when this whole project was becoming a reality. Musk is the founder and CEO of SpaceX. Tesla is his car company.

And that is the biggest distinction of this new Space Age: private companies seizing the initiative in space travel that once belonged solely to government. The American taxpayer doesn’t have to pay a dime for SpaceX projects. The Falcon Heavy costs Musk $90 million, which sounds like a lot until you compare it with Falcon Heavy’s nearest competitor, United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV rocket, whose comparative costs are estimated at as much as $400 million.

This is why the way we gush over the Randian exploits of rich nerds is so dangerous: people actually buy it. In this grandiose prayer of thanks for Musk and the free market, the author notably omits the billions of dollars in federal funding that Musk has received for SpaceX. Not only is this directly taking resources that, yes, come from taxpayers, this is money not going to benefit programs or to scientific efforts aimed at the general good. In short, we are still paying for it, but we’re not even getting anything out of it. Not without a “modest” $200,000 and a lifetime of waiting, at least.

Again: what happened today was an incredible achievement, but it is an achievement that does not belong to Musk, much as he will reap all the credit for it. This was the work of engineers, physicists, programmers, factory workers, janitors, and their neglected families as all of them worked inhumane hours to realize Musk’s childish fantasies and cynical ambitions alike. They should all be incredibly proud of what they accomplished. Musk just made some dumb tweets and stuck a car in it, all while holding their lives hostage with the implicit contract that binds all workers under capital: work for me if you want to eat.

When you read about the rich, their description almost always includes a number: their net worth. But this number has a never-mentioned story told through the unspeakable things a rich person had to do to get that wealth. When you omit that story without even an acknowledgement, the implicit statement is that it doesn’t matter — that the lives ruined and ended to accumulate this wealth do not matter.

But we will keep treating rich tyrants like Musk with kid gloves because it’s profitable. These rich idiots are the ones who cut the checks anyways. And so, for now, the cycle continues: The narrative of human history is one of deluded individuals who see God as a tyrant, and model themselves in his image in their desire to wield power over others. They are propped up in equal measure by sycophants who see a route to comfort, and the dispossessed who have no means to stop them.

You do not have to keep worshiping these false gods. And at the very least, you don’t have to write about them so breathlessly.

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