Bully Pulpit

Om Malik-

Om Malik

This is the third in my ongoing series of posts about Elon Musk’s quest to buy Twitter. In the first of the series, I pointed out that Twitter’s CEO might be woefully out of his depth, and the board has failed to do its job. Twitter founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey agreed with me. I later pointed out that there is no (motivated) buyer (just yet) other than Musk. In this third piece, I point out that Elon’s intentions are self-serving. And why not. What’s the point of having billions if you can’t protect your self-interests — Om 


It might seem too cynical, but to understand every piece of news, I use a simple framework: behind every action is an agenda. And that has what has allowed me to make sense of Elon Musk’s decision to buy Twitter. Elon has offered $54.20 a share or about $44 billion, and Twitter will become a privately owned company.

To understand Elon’s grand plan, let’s turn back the clock to 1909.

According to a story published in the New York Times, then-president Theodore Roosevelt said: “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!” He had coined the term that would become commonplace over the next century.

For President Roosevelt, that bully pulpit was his office (and position) to speak about and on issues and change the course of the conversation. He spoke to the American people directly, and many presidents have done the same since then. Of course, their words and thoughts have been mediated by what is known as professional media.

“And up until the end of the 20th century, the sources of distribution were pretty limited — radio, newspapers, magazines, and television,” I wrote in a piece about the changing role of media in the age of social media. “That in turn meant that newsmakers had to go to media outlets in order to share their message and get it amplified and reach those they wanted to reach — call them constituents or the target audience. With the rise of the social web, that has changed. There is a blurring of the line between what is the news and what is a tweet, photo, or blog post. In other words, it is a kind of mosh pit of data and information — and that means the role of media is changing.”

“Thanks to the Internet and the social web, everyone from companies to governments are acting like media entities and spreading their messages, bypassing the messengers – aka the media outlets. “I have written in the past.

Those with a bully pulpit no longer need a professional class of mediators. A perfect example of that was US President Donald Trump — who was elected and stayed in power through this “direct” pulpit. Despite the professional media’s best efforts to expose him, the President managed to serve out his full term. His power started to wane only after the President got muted on the social platforms. The lesson: social media platforms can take away anyone’s bully pulpit.

Musk is too intelligent to care about politics. After all, politicians are fungible, but billions are forever. Elon’s desire to buy Twitter has nothing to do with free speech and some well-meaning concepts of cleaning up the platform or making the company efficient and innovative. However, all those would be nice.

Instead, buying Twitter ensures that he is never locked out from the platform that gives him the bully pulpit and power. His ability to put together a $46 billion offer for Twitter faster than a short-order cook whips up breakfast is quite impressive and only reinforces my point — the man needs the megaphone to achieve his final goals.

“Mr. Roosevelt is the Tom Sawyer of the political world of the twentieth century; always showing off; always hunting for a chance to show off; in his frenzied imagination the Great Republic is a vast Barnum circus with him for a clown and the whole world for audience; he would go to Halifax for half a chance to show off, and he would go to hell for a whole one.”

Mark Twain

If Twain were alive today, he probably would be equally unkind towards Elon, though he would replace politics with futurism.

Musk’s power comes from his millions of followers (including the machine-made followers who have helped spread Musk’s digital musk.) He needs them for the only thing he has to sell: the future. Elon doesn’t need to invent anything — he needs to believe in something and then get people to buy that.

Whether it is electric vehicles, flying and landing rockets, setting up space colonies, humanoids, cryptocurrencies with dog images, doing brain implants, or boring tunnels to travel underground — Musk needs to sell the future loudly, garishly, and without the interference of the malcontent naysayers in media and old industries. It needs extraordinary conviction to get the Germans and the Japanese to buy a Tesla. It needs special chutzpah to get rockets flying and landing.

Musk loves to hunt down naysayers. Does anyone remember how he got into a war of words with The New York Times over Tesla’s Model-S car review? In 2014. He called it a “fake review.” Since then, the naysayers have been met with typhoon-strength tweetstorms.

Fast forward to today — he is not just going to be fighting about a car review, and it is about everything he is backing. He needs his bully pulpit to have enough people believe in his way of thinking so that hundreds of millions flow into his projects and thus enable his vision of the future.

Since I started writing this piece with a quote from President Roosevelt, let me end with another one of his quotes: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Some wag later quipped: “Roosevelt carried a big stick all right, but the soft speaking resembled the bellowing of a bull moose during mating season.”

It seems behind every tweet, there is an agenda.