In a moment of pure impulse, Elon Musk, the richest man in the world, said he would buy Twitter.
A few days later, he thought better of his offer, an eye-watering $44 billion, and tried to rescind it.
Rather than go to court and litigate the prospective non-purchase, he went ahead with it, admitting that he had overpaid.
His critics think he is going to destroy Twitter. I am not so sure.
First, I would never underestimate Elon Musk. He has an extremely impressive track record of creating powerful and successful companies from next to nothing. He took Tesla, which was interesting, but small and virtually unknown, and turned it into the most valuable auto company in the world – projected to sell more than 1 million cars next year. From nothing.
In space, while other billionaires were creating rocket based carnival rides – (go see the edge of space for 3 minutes), he has created an extremely successful private space company, and having seen NASA’s moon launch last week – $37 billion to send one rocket back to the moon – and have nothing but the tiny capsule return – well, take a look at how his booster rockets land on their on to be re-used. Clearly the man is a genius.
But how does a genius deal with the world of Twitter?
He has re-admitted Donald Trump, much to the consternation of not just liberals, but also those Republicans who would like to see him go away.
He claims to be a great advocate of a free press. Well, good for him.
Here’s the thing about a free press. It is messy. It is supposed to be messy. In fact, the messier it is, the better it is functioning.
Like great art, a great free press should annoy. It should make people angry, and it should force people to think. There is not point in having a press that only repeats and reinforces what you already believe. That is an utter waste of time, even if it makes you feel good.
Is an open free press dangerous? You bet it is. It is supposed to be dangerous. That is why countries like Russia or China or Iran or Saudi Arabia (the list is sadly quite long) go to enormous efforts to control and restrict their press and media.
The United States has a long tradition of protecting a free press – even if it is messy and sometimes dangerous. It dates from 1734, when John Peter Zenger, a New York based printer published The New York Journal
and accused then Governor William Cosby of corruption, rigging elections and allowing the French navy to explore New York waters. Cosby accused Zenger of libel and tried to both shut the paper down and have Zenger arrested. At trial, Zenger’s attorney Andrew Hamilton made a rousing defense not just of Zenger but also of the idea of a free press. The judge ordered the jury to find Zenger guilty, but the jury took only 10 minutes to find him not guilty.
Zenger’s press was a bit like Musk’s twitter.
In the words of Mr. Dooley in 1902 – the job of the press is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Messy messy messy
The messier the press, the more you know it is working as it is supposed to.