The New York Times was blasted on Thursday for running a “hit piece” suggesting that Elon Musk’s childhood in apartheid South Africa made him indifferent to racism and that it could impact his content moderation policies once he takes control of Twitter.
Times correspondents John Eligon and Lynsey Chutel reported that Musk benefited from an “upbringing in elite, segregated white communities” in suburban Johannesburg, “where black people were rarely seen other than in service of white families living in palatial homes.”
The Times story surmised that Musk’s being “insulated from the harsh reality” of the system of apartheid may dull his sensitivity to racist hate speech that could be allowed to flourish on Twitter should he take over and institute his desired changes.
Musk “came up in a time and place in which there was hardly a free exchange of ideas, and he would not have had to suffer the violent consequences of misinformation,” a Johannesburg-based legal analyst, Eusebius McKaiser, told the Times.
Twitter users blasted the Times story as a “hit piece” and said that the billionaire’s childhood during apartheid — when the South African government imposed a system of race-based segregation and discrimination — shouldn’t reflect poorly on him.
The Times story notes that Musk was “bullied” in school when he “chided” a white student for using an anti-black slur.
Independent journalist Saagar Enjeti hit out at the Times for “insinuat[ing] [Musk] is racist” even though the story notes that the Tesla boss “had non-white friends growing up in apartheid South Africa.”
Enjeti also cites Times reporting that Musk’s father was an “anti-apartheid politician” and that Musk “literally left [South Africa] so he didn’t have to serve in apartheid military.”
Glenn Greenwald, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, was scathing in his criticism of the Times, accusing the Grey Lady of casting aspersions on Musk because of his commitment to free speech.
“This is the kind of punishment the corporate media doles out to anyone whom they perceive as their enemy and, especially, who opposes the censorship regime on which they rely,” Greenwald tweeted.
“Reporting on Musk is obviously valid: necessary,” he wrote. “This isn’t reporting. It’s deceit and punishment.”
“Very strange piece of reporting,” Thomas Chatterton Williams tweeted. “People must be judged as individuals and on their own actions, not the cultures they happen to be born into.”
“Y’all are reaching,” Clifton Duncan tweeted.
Ted Dabrowski accused the Times of “judging people by where they grew up. Thought we were past that.”
Musk left South Africa at the age of 17 and relocated to Canada. He then attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he received a bachelor in physics and economics in 1995.
In 1999, his software company, Zip2, was acquired by Compaq. Musk received 7% of the proceeds, which translated to $22 million.
The next year, Musk used money from the sale of Zip2 to co-found X.com, an online bank that eventually merged with Confinity. The newly created entity was renamed PayPal, which was bought by eBay for $1.5 billion in 2002.