All the Problems With Isaacson's Musk Biography

Author was 'trying to write a Great Man book,' and it shows, argues Elizabeth Lopatto at the Verge
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 3, 2023 1:38 PM CDT
All the Problems With Isaacson's Musk Biography
This cover image released by Simon & Schuster shows "Elon Musk" by Walter Isaacson.   (Simon & Schuster via AP)

Walter Isaacson is an illustrious biographer who's probed the minds of Alfred Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Steve Jobs, to name a few. His latest 670-page biography of Elon Musk, however, is threatening the journalist's reputation for accuracy and fairness, as Elizabeth Lopatto contends at the Verge. She gives several examples in which Isaacson appears to get the facts wrong or otherwise ignores criticism of Musk and his companies while touting the myth of genius. In the major example, contained in an excerpt summarized by CNN, Isaacson tells the story of how Musk "secretly told his engineers to turn off [Starlink's internet] coverage" of the Crimean coast last year to prevent a Ukrainian "sneak attack" on the Russian naval fleet in Sevastopol. Musk quickly disputed that account.

The billionaire claimed "government authorities" had made an "emergency request" for the Starlink service, never actually active over Crimea, to be turned on. "If I had agreed to their request, then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation," Musk wrote online. Isaacson immediately admitted his account was wrong. "The Ukrainians THOUGHT coverage was enabled all the way to Crimea, but it was not," he wrote, stating his mistaken belief was "based on my conversations with Musk." The error, which Isaacson said would be updated in future editions, concerned Lopatto, not least because it couldn't be explained by the author's listed sources. Elsewhere, it appears Isaacson chose not to interview additional sources and took Musk—a man prone to exaggeration if not outright lying—at his word, she writes.

Isaacson writes about a summer camp Musk attended where "every few years, one of the kids would die," with the presumed source for this claim being a Musk family member. He also writes that "the idea for Neuralink was inspired by science fiction," without mentioning that brain-machine interfaces were inserted in humans a decade before the company was founded. There's no mention, either, of allegations of animal abuse at Neuralink and sexual and racial harassment at Tesla. Isaacson does mention the "quirky conservative populist views" of Musk's maternal grandfather, but leaves out that he chaired the national council of Canada's openly antisemitic Social Credit Party, Lopatto notes. Basically, Isaacson ignores details that make Musk look "like a dolt—sort of a problem for a biographer trying to write a Great Man book," she writes. (More Walter Isaacson stories.)

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