[Note: This post was originally featured on CleanTechnica.]
As I was researching an article about Tesla’s participation in the new EV Drive Coalitionabout a week ago, I came across a source from The Daily Caller on the subject. As I skimmed, this online newspaper’s right wing ideology was quite evident — not my worldview, granted, but didn’t Sun Tzu say in The Art of War, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles?” So I read on … and was amazed at how this newspaper, in the guise of reporting on new electric vehicle advocacy, offered its readers some targeted messaging, completely neglected to include many important facts, and chose language specifically intended to discredit Tesla without foundation.
Let’s do a little discourse analysis to uncover the meanings, methods, and messages within the article. It’s really fascinating! And it speaks to how much the fossil fuel industry has to lose by Tesla’s ascendancy in the automotive and energy markets through its model of a sustainable tomorrow for the planet.
The Daily Caller offers the following “About Us” information on its website:
“Founded in 2010 by Tucker Carlson, a 20-year veteran journalist, and Neil Patel, former chief policy advisor to Vice President Cheney, The Daily Caller is one of America’s largest and fastest-growing news publications. … From exposing shocking mismanagement of Republican National Committee funds to exclusively revealing the FBI’s interview with Hillary Clinton, The Daily Caller’s reporting has been thorough and tough on members of both political parties. … The Daily Caller’s reporting is distributed worldwide to over 20 million unique readers each month through our highly-visited homepage, wildly popular newsletters and apps, countless citations from the world’s other top news sites, and our vast social media following.”
From the people (“Tucker Carlson,” “Neil Patel,” “Vice President Cheney,” “Hillary Clinton”), to its topics of interest (“Republican National Committee funds,” “FBI’s interview,” “both political parties”), to its audience (“unique readers”), and its self-congratulatory adjectives (“largest,” “fastest-growing,” “shocking,” “exclusively,” “thorough,” “tough,” “highly-visited,” “wildly popular,” “countless,” “vast”), The Daily Caller self-defines in terms of strongly right-biased story selection and self-aggrandizing exclamations. Noted for conservative media opinion writers and deep-thinking essayists rather than journalists who do original reporting, the news and opinion website has been labeled by Media Bias/ Fact Check as “mixed” for its numerous failed fact checks.
Framing the Status of EVs Today in Order to Discredit Tesla
Media texts represent aspects of the world that contribute to establishing, maintaining, and changing social relations of power, domination, and exploitation, according to social linguist Norman Fairclough. In today’s Trumpian world in which immigrants are enemies, the Supreme Court is partisan, health care certainty is tenuous, free trade is under fire, and tax reforms preference corporations and the über wealthy, it makes sense that Tesla would be a target of right-wing conservative attacks.
Let’s look at The Daily Caller article, “Tesla Joins Forces with GM and Others Seeking to Save Electric Car Subsidies.” The title is fairly innocuous, right? “Joins forces” has a sense of strength, and GM is certainly a stalwart Big 3 US automaker. “Save” is accurate to the intentions of the EV Drive Coalition, which says, “Without a modification to the policy, consumer demand will suffer and so will the future of EVs in the US.” And “seeking,” “save,” and “subsidies” are alliterative (repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words), so the article starts out blandly enough to draw in a wide audience of readers.
Soon into the article is the statement, “A coalition of electric vehicle companies led by Tesla is pushing and prodding the federal government to expand a tax credit set to expire that allows customers to undercut the auto market.” Ah, here’s that alliteration again (“pushing and prodding”) which, as a figure of speech, catches and holds the reader’s eye. The connotation is negative, as if a small child is pestering an adult who has more important, mature matters to handle. Then comes the first whammy (“allows customers to undercut the auto market”), which wags an admonishing finger at consumers who want to get more for less at the expense of the kindly, established US automakers. We’re led to believe that these automakers have spent decades establishing themselves through a meritocracy inherent within the American Dream. Forgotten/avoided is the US government’s $80.7 billion bailout of the auto industry that lasted from December 2008 to December 2014. Called the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the program cost US taxpayers $10.2 billion.
Referring to the newly formed EV Drive Coalition as “so-called” is quite strange in a subsequent sentence. Usually, “so-called” means something that is alleging to be something you are not sure it is. That is the Coalition’s name, so the implication is that it’s really not a coalition in actual practice — it’s a convenience for press releases and governmental advocacy.
“Tesla CEO Elon Musk has previously mentioned that the company can survive without government assistance” combines 2 notions — 1) survival and 2) federal cash injections to prop up a faltering business model. Now The Daily Caller has a rallying cry that the far right can grasp. Using long-debunked myths about renewable energy, the article echoes sentiments from the Heritage Foundation: “Conservatives believe in free markets, not central planning. They believe in fiscal responsibility, not waste.” EV companies and customers, by extension, that require tax credits as major purchasing factors of electric vehicles are wasting taxpayers’ money. So the right-wing website asserts.
Soon the article states that “the market for inexpensive electric vehicles will dry up without the extension.” Actually, that’s not what the EV Drive Coalition says on its website. Instead, it argues, “Without a modification to the policy, consumer demand will suffer and so will the future of EVs in the US.” Both use existential propositions, suggesting that such a concept is absolutely going to happen. Now, you and I who understand that the future must have zero-emissions transportation might have suggested slightly different wording to this Coalition sentence. Yes, losing the tax credit may hurt sales in the short term. But once more people learn that 59–62% of the electrical energy of an EV is converted into power to turn the wheels, as opposed to a gasoline engine, where only 17–21% of the chemical energy in the fuel is turned into useful work — and once they realize how that relates to their bank accounts — EVs will be more in demand. (Source: Designing Climate Solutions, Chapter 8.)
Then The Daily Caller article turns specifically to Tesla and its CEO, telling its audience that“Musk frequently assures people that Tesla does not require government help.” The article cites a 2015 interview with CNBC where Musk says of tax incentives, “None of them are necessary; they are all helpful.” Essentially, the claim that alternative energy entities like the Tesla network exist because of government subsidization is not really true. The reality also is that even without the existence of such programs, the companies in question could very well have remained viable simply by expanding more slowly than they have — the support programs are mostly a means of increasing the rate of development/growth. Governments provide help (“government subsidies,” “government loan,” “heavy government support”) in order to stimulate economic activity, maintain technological stature with other countries, and, in the case of Tesla, lower pollution levels. (If you want to learn more about Tesla and its government subsidies, check out this CleanTechnica article.)
Moving back — finally — to the title topic of EV Drive Coalition launch, the articles cites unnamed “analysts” who argue that Musk’s companies are “particularly sensitive to the whims of legislators.” If dialogue is rich communication between people as social agents and as personalities, then we absolutely need attribution to know to whom it is we are speaking when we refer to such “analysts,” presumably smart people who decry Tesla’s viability as “particularly sensitive.” How else could we ask them questions and learn more? How could we judge their expertise?
Moreover, by describing US representatives as conceding to “whims,” the article is lambasting both sides of an entrenched partisan Congress. Even the Koch brother-funded candidates are under attack here — stand your ground, you who vacillate with your conscience!
Noting that “Californians made up nearly 50 percent of Tesla’s customers” reminds rural audience members that those who buy EVs aren’t really in your tribe, anyway, so do you want to even consider purchasing an EV and being associated with those tree-hugging socialists?
Reinforcing its premise that “elimination of the tax credit could seriously hobble Tesla” (with “hobble” as an allusion to rugged individualists whose lives depend on mobility), the article says that Tesla still has an “inability to mass produce vehicles at the scale of its larger competitors.” Yes, that’s true in a literal sense. Tesla hasn’t sold the numbers that much older automakers have, and it’s still ramping up its robotic assembly lines for optimal manufacturing.
Then again, Tesla was incorporated in 2003 and now, 15 years later, sells the Model S, Model X, and Model 3 vehicles, Powerwall and Powerpack batteries, solar panels, solar roof tiles, and related products. But Tesla’s strategy is to change the automotive industry by fitting innovative pieces together in a “complex coordination” that’s really different in marketing, production, sales, and technology from its competitors. Perhaps that’s what’s more important right now than Tesla’s current scale — the possibilities for Tesla to reinvent what manufacturing looks like in the US at a time when disenfranchised voters have turned to an avowed racist to lead the country due to their ennui about a loss of US manufacturing.
Discursive strategies can be used in the media to produce particular effects and contribute to the construction of social realities. The narrative that The Daily Caller drew upon to question EVs, generally, and Tesla, specifically, supports biases or points of view that were transmitted by an informative discourse conveyed by conservative media.
Media exerts strong influence in several domains — social, political, economic, legal, and behavioral, and it operates from a symbolic perspective. Symbolism can lead us to consider the information transmitted as a “view” of the event, a construct, rather than as the clipping of a given reality. Anytime we can slow down our reading of the media and look at political discourse as the process of production and interpretation of a text in meaningful political, social and cultural contexts, we all benefit.