Sarah Lacy is a freelance business reporter and a fixture on the Silicon Valley scene. Gawker media mini-mogul Nick Denton once called her “the hottest reporter in the tech world—ever.”
So when she conducted a video interview for Yahoo with Elon Musk, the futurist in chief behind fledgling electric car company Tesla (TSLA), she was on familiar ground. Very familiar!
At the top of the interview, Ms. Lacy brings up a Randall Stross column that had appeared in the Sunday Business section of The Times in November, titled “Only the Rich Can Afford It. Should Taxpayers Back It?”
“Randy Stross is a huge douche bag,” said Mr. Musk.
Ms. Lacy let out a long, loud belly laugh.
“And an idiot,” he continued.
“It was funny!” said Ms. Lacy in an interview later. “It was something you don’t expect a CEO to say.”
Or a reporter to laugh out loud about in front of her audience? Mr. Musk continued to tee off on Mr. Stross, and wondered aloud how anyone who lived in Silicon Valley could produce such a story. “Well,” said Ms. Lacy, who began to chuckle again, “a lot of people agree with you.” It didn’t take much to know where she stood.
“There was a huge outpouring of letters to the editor, and actually, I should point out, that The New York Times printed a retraction,” he continued.
“Oh, did they?” she asked.
“Of course, when they print retractions, it’s on page 27—like micro-fine,” he said, prompting more laughter from Ms. Lacy. “They actually printed a retraction, yeah.”
Actually, they didn’t.
In Mr. Stross’ column, he complains that Tesla Motors is looking for $400 million in federal loans as part of a $25 billion loan package for automakers that was passed last year. Mr. Stross was disgusted by this since the money would be used to fund a company that sells expensive cars, and in particular, the Tesla Roadster, which sells for $109,000. The only problem is when Tesla asked for the federal money, it didn’t ask for money to fund the $109,000 car, but for a much more affordable sedan that, after tax credits, would cost only $50,000.
A correction—not a retraction—ran and the headline was softened. (It changed from “Only the Rich Can Afford It. Should Taxpayers Back It?” to “Should Taxpayers Back a High-End Electric Carmaker?”)
Times editors were less than thrilled with what Mr. Musk said on the Yahoo video, but they were even less happy with Ms. Lacy—she never called them for reaction, and her interview manner didn’t really help her cause.
“I think Sarah Lacy was too busy giggling to do Journalism 101 and call Randy or me for comment to make sure what Elon was saying was accurate,” said Tim O’Brien, the Sunday Business editor of The Times, in an interview. “Because it was not only inaccurate, it was flat-out wrong. We wrote a clarification of the headline. We didn’t retract the story at all; we stood firmly by the story, and I still stand by Randy’s column.”
“You can’t help but watch that interview and marvel at the squishy familiarity between Lacy and Musk,” he continued. “And I wonder whether or not some journalistic blinders had popped off.”
Mr. O’Brien said that the story first caught his attention when he saw it pop up on—where else?—Twitter on Friday.
“I saw the headline and it said something like ‘Elon calls NYT writer Randall Stross a douche bag’ and I was like whoa-ho!” he said. “I clicked on it and there it was. It was so ridiculous that it was entertaining. It was so misguided and inaccurate and I was stunned at the poor quality of the journalism.”
“Look, at the end of the day, Elon was the one who said stuff, and I was interviewing him,” Ms. Lacy said when we told her what Mr. O’Brien had said. “I think it’s embarrassing that The Times would try to throw me under the bus because they did shoddy reporting that they wound up correcting. If they want to throw me under the bus to make up for their own column that they massively rewrote, you know, go for it.”
Technically, the column was not massively rewritten—it had one sentence removed and one was massaged in order to fix the error.
But that was plenty to Ms. Lacy.
“It was not just a correction,” she said. “But come on, guys: It’s just embarrassing. To me, it’s embarrassing to turn this around as a story on me. Yeah, I’m a girl and I’m a reporter. Go ahead and throw me under the bus if that makes you feel better. I think it’s just embarrassing.
“I don’t know why it’s O.K. for Randall Stross to have an opinion and then it’s not O.K. for me to have an opinion when I basically have the same job,” she continued.
Ms. Lacy spent years as a Business Week reporter, but now she spends her time doing videos for Yahoo, serving as editor at large for TechCrunch—a Web site that very much played up Ms. Lacy’s “douche bag” scoop—and doing other contract jobs.
Last year, at the South by Southwest Interactive conference, Ms. Lacy got the honor of interviewing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. She interrupted him a bit. CNET described her performance this way: “[O]n-stage interviewer Sarah Lacy out-and-out bombed, becoming much more of the story than she should have been and having the capacity crowd turn on her over the course of the hour discussion.”
When we asked her if she regretted her interview style with Mr. Musk, she said, “It obviously caught me off guard. I started laughing.” And she added that she had “nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I think all reporters are perfectionists,” she continued. “You can’t point to any interview that was absolutely perfect. I think everyone has their own style in interacting. I think everyone has their own style in journalism. Look, I’m a girl from the South! Sometimes I laugh. Someone can pejoratively call it giggling. But if you look at the body of my work, I ask lots of hard questions, and break a lot of hard news.”
Update, April 15, 10:00 a.m.: This story has been updated since last night to reflect that Ms. Lacy’s interview with Mark Zuckerberg took place at 2008’s South by Southwest Interactive conference.