Musk Claims Media Bias in Debate Over ‘Dilbert’ Creator’s Racist Rant


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The Twitter chief waded into a scandal involving the cartoonist Scott Adams, as Twitter undergoes layoffs and struggles to lure back advertisers.

Scott Adams wearing a blue-and-black plaid shirt and seated next to a screen displaying his “Dilbert’ comic strip.
Scott Adams, the creator of the comic strip “Dilbert.” Hundreds of newspapers said they would stop running the comic strip in response to Mr. Adams’s tirade.Credit…Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle, via Getty Images

Last fall, shortly after completing his purchase of Twitter, Elon Musk sent a message to a skittish corporate community: Trust me.

“Twitter aspires to be the most respected advertising platform in the world,” Mr. Musk wrote in an open letter, contrasting himself with a so-called traditional news media that, in his telling, had fueled societal divides in the pursuit of profit.

On Sunday, Mr. Musk leaped to the defense of the “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams, whose career has been upended in recent days after he called Black people “a hate group” and urged white people to “just get the hell away” from them during a YouTube livestream.

Mr. Musk, no fan of major news organizations, then appeared to criticize the hundreds of newspapers that have since dropped “Dilbert” from their pages, asserting: “The media is racist.”

It was another example of Mr. Musk blithely inserting himself into the sort of incendiary situation that most chief executives would run away from. And it built on his history of attacking what he views as a misguided commitment to diversity by the political left, which Mr. Musk, in line with some conservatives, sees as itself a form of discrimination.

In linking a scandal over a cartoonist’s racist remarks to a critique of the news media, Mr. Musk, 51, also reiterated his contempt for mainstream journalists. The billionaire often denounces major news outlets for censoring alternative viewpoints, even as he temporarily barred some of the journalists who cover his companies from Twitter last year.

The frenetic, provocative and sometimes contradictory tenor of Mr. Musk’s public remarks has won the Twitter and Tesla leader millions of fans. Twitter’s advertisers may take a dimmer view, questioning the stability of his leadership as the social media company struggles financially.

  • Rupert Murdoch: The conservative media mogul acknowledged in a deposition in a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit that several Fox News hosts promoted the false narrative that the 2020 election was stolen.
  • Dropping ‘Dilbert’: Hundreds of newspapers across the country will stop running the comic strip after its creator, Scott Adams, said that Black people were “a hate group.”
  • Carlos Watson: The founder of the troubled digital start-up Ozy Media was arrested on fraud charges, punctuating one of the more precipitous falls in the annals of online journalism.
  • Vice Media: The departure of Nancy Dubuc, the chief executive of Vice, highlights the fallen fortunes of a group of digital media companies that not long ago was talked about as the future of the industry.

“He’s playing a version of fantasy C.E.O. around Twitter, without any real expertise or commitment to dealing with the complications,” said Rashad Robinson, the president of the civil rights organization Color of Change, one of the groups that met with Mr. Musk last year to discuss Twitter’s handling of problematic and offensive posts.

Mr. Robinson said Mr. Musk’s behavior had left Twitter advertisers in a bind. “These companies, with their diversity programs, are all saying things that are in direct opposition to what Elon Musk is saying,” he said in an interview. “These companies actually have a really good opportunity to leave both as a moral decision and as a business decision.”

Mr. Musk did not respond to a request for comment. He has called himself a “free speech absolutist,” and he offered “amnesty” to thousands of suspended Twitter users last year. Researchers found that within months of his takeover of the service, slurs against Black Americans and other minority groups surged on the platform. (Mr. Musk has denied claims that hate speech on Twitter has increased under his ownership.)

Mr. Adams, in a text message, wrote: “I didn’t see Musk’s comment as supporting me so much as saying something needs to be fixed.”

Representatives for several Twitter advertisers did not respond to requests for comment on Monday. But the episode left some Madison Avenue executives privately shaking their heads.

In recent weeks, Twitter seemed to make headway in persuading some brands to return to its platform. Mark Read, the chief executive of WPP, one of the world’s largest ad companies, told Bloomberg TV last week that Twitter appeared “a lot more stable the last few months than perhaps it was toward the end of last year.” He added, “I think clients want to start to look about how they can come back onto Twitter.”

“That’s great to hear!” Mr. Musk tweeted in response.

WPP declined to comment on Monday.

Hundreds of newspapers, including USA Today, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and the international edition of The New York Times, said they would stop running the syndicated “Dilbert” comic strip in response to Mr. Adams’s rant.

Mr. Musk seemed to respond by criticizing the papers for abandoning Mr. Adams, a view in line with his usual concerns about censorship of alternative viewpoints.

“For a *very* long time, US media was racist against nonwhite people, now they’re racist against whites & Asians,” Mr. Musk tweeted on Sunday. “Same thing happened with elite colleges & high schools in America. Maybe they can try not being racist.”

Mr. Musk later seemed to approve of a Twitter user’s comment that “Adams’s comments weren’t good. But there’s an element of truth to this…it’s complicated.”

Exactly,” Mr. Musk replied.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said on Monday that he was “deeply disturbed” by Mr. Musk’s comments. “As the prominent leader of a social media platform,” he said, “Musk’s words carry great influence, and he should be condemning bigotry, not defending it.”

Twitter has faced an exodus of advertisers since Mr. Musk signaled early in his tenure that he would loosen its content moderation rules. Some brands sharply curtailed their spending: More than half of Twitter’s top 100 advertisers from last year have not spent anything on the platform in 2023, according to recent estimates from the research firm Sensor Tower.

At first, Mr. Musk sought to reach out to some critics.

He met with leaders from several civil rights groups, including the N.A.A.C.P. and the Anti-Defamation League, in early November, and some of the attendees described Mr. Musk as receptive to their feedback. He also spoke with advertising executives to assuage their concerns that their brands would start appearing alongside toxic material on the platform.

Mr. Robinson of Color of Change said Mr. Musk had pledged to form a council, which would include leaders of civil rights groups, to help advise Twitter on how to handle tricky content issues. Months later, the council has not materialized.

Twitter has also laid off thousands of employees, including at least another 200 over the weekend, as Mr. Musk continues to publicly espouse his views on a dizzying number of matters via his tweets. His attention flits from pop culture to tech innovations to, occasionally, what he happens to be watching on TV.

“Rewatching Step Brothers … so good,” Mr. Musk wrote on Sunday evening, referring to the slapstick comedy with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly.

And hours after he had weighed in on Mr. Adams’s racist rant, Mr. Musk replied to a Twitter post featuring a video of the industrial process that mass produces pretzels.

“Damn,” he commented, “that machine makes a lot of pretzels!”