The rise of Tesla is undoubtedly the most interesting automotive story in decades, but its meteoric and sometimes chaotic and controversial ascent speaks volumes about far more than just the auto industry.
At its core, the Tesla phenomenon is a cultural one. Underneath the good and bad of the company itself lies a story that millions of people have chosen to believe. Absent anything resembling consistent profits, the Tesla story—spun relentlessly by its outspoken celebrity CEO—is the foundation on which the business has been built and is what keeps fresh injections of investor cash coming in.
And what a story it is. A radical high-tech startup whose brash and egomaniacal founder has a reputation for accomplishing the impossible, takes on a slow-moving, century-old auto industry, with its Big Oil allies and planet-killing cars. The story of Tesla has the all the juicy components of classical mythology: the struggle between the forces of good and evil, action and apathy, innovation and evolution. All the bright promise of the 21st Century overtaking the toxic disappointments of the 20th. It is perfectly suited to appeal to our the high-tech optimism—and to tweak all the anxieties—of our rapidly-changing world.
This story was largely authored by Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, and it started with his 2006 “Secret Master Plan” blog post. But as it has taken root in the public consciousness, a ghost writer has quietly stepped in to unofficially help tell the tale. His name is Fred Lambert, and he is the Head Writer of Electrek. As media coverage of Tesla and Musk has shifted from consistent adulation to more critical coverage (and has Tesla has consistently failed to meet production goals, and as Musk has engaged in an intellectually shoddy and explicitly Trumpian “fake news” Twitter campaign against journalists), Lambert and Electrek have carved out a massive and, by all accounts, lucrative space in the automotive media.
Since the site’s founding in 2012, Electrek’s relentless commitment to forwarding the rosy Tesla narrative has made it a favored conduit for positive Tesla leaks, a regular feature in Musk’s influential Twitter feed, and created a large, fast-growing and fervently pro-Tesla readership.
But like the company that it covers so closely, Electrek’s meteoric rise has been dogged by controversy. Though some of these controversies are simply the product of the website’s consistently and aggressively positive position on Tesla, much of the criticism comes from pro-Tesla (and pro-electric vehicle) corners and focuses on independent issues like journalistic ethics, EV fan culture, and personal decorum. Even as Electrek turns every news story into a referendum on Tesla and divides the world into fans and haters, its brazen style is opening new divisions that cut across its black and white worldview.
The Origins of Electrek
Electrek was founded in 2012 by Seth Weintraub, as the latest member of his tech media empire, which had risen to prominence with the success of 9to5Mac and 9to5Google. With 9to5Mac cementing its reputation for scoops—especially by its wunderkind contributor Mark Gurman, whom Weintraub hired at age 15—business was booming. Weintraub had purchased a Tesla Model S (specifically, the quickly-discontinued 40 kWh version) as well as a position in Musk’s company’s stock, and was completely convinced that both Tesla and electric cars were the future. In a 2014 profile on Business Insider, Weintraub said "I could probably talk five hours about Tesla right now, but I'm not going to... I think it's going to change the world."
This attitude comes across in Weintraub’s early Electrek posts, which are mostly brief items based on news reporting and press releases. The Tesla-heavy mix of positive news, critical stories covered with a defensive spin, and an emphasis on the strong performance of Tesla’s stock price (along with a sprinkling of non-Tesla EV news) revealed Electrek’s core formula even before its popularity took off. Disclosures about Weintraub’s stock ownership appear to be inconsistent, with the disclosure “long Tesla” appearing on only one of two stories about Tesla stock published on November 5, 2013.
Though Weintraub set the template for Electrek’s coverage, the engine driving the site’s explosive growth has been Fred Lambert, who was hired as the site’s head writer in 2015. At the time, Lambert had little official experience in media, clean energy, or the auto industry. Before Weintraub found him, Lambert was an order desk clerk at a door manufacturer in his native Quebec. But, like Weintraub, he was a committed fan of Tesla, an investor in the company’s stock, and an online warrior on behalf of the company, writing bullish recommendations for Tesla stock at The Motley Fool, Investorshub and his own blog Black Sheep Planet, as well as participating in the hard-core fan community at Reddit’s r/teslamotors (under the username FredTesla) before becoming moderator of that community.
Lambert’s dedication to supporting and defending Tesla is well illustrated by a bizarre contretemps with the tuning company, Saleen Automotive. According to a lawsuit filed by Saleen in July of 2015, Lambert allegedly engaged in an online campaign against Saleen after the tuner announced it would offer an upgrade package for the Tesla Model S called the FOURSIXTEEN. Lambert’s attacks included accusations that Saleen committed fraud, stock manipulation and operated a Ponzi scheme using customer deposits to cover operating expenses. These accusations were allegedly posted under a variety of screennames at Reddit, Investorshub, Black Sheep Planet, and at Zalkon.com, which purported to be a “Capital and Research” outfit (with Lambert as CEO). Saleen’s suit sought an injunction against Lambert’s allegedly defamatory posts.
In an August 2014 post at Zalkon.com (which he later reposted to r/Teslamotors), Lambert laid out his case against Saleen, arguing that the tuner had overstated its status as an authorized Tesla modifier, as well as its ability to improve the Model S’s performance, and claimed that Saleen’s upgrades would void Tesla’s warranty. Noting that users at InvestorsHub were posting about the potential for a “partnership” between Saleen and Tesla and floating rumors of an electric Saleen, Lambert concluded:
“The confusion around the FOURSIXTEEN and the ‘partnership with Tesla’ could have been a few simple mistakes from Saleen’s staff or it might have been a desperate attempt to sell their new car at all cost in order to save the company. It’s difficult to tell. Either way, it doesn’t look pretty.”
In a reply to his own Reddit post, Lambert clarified that his crusade against Saleen was as much about protecting Tesla as it was about warning other investors about a potential penny stock scam.
“I hope you are right and that people see through it, but the warranty thing still worries me. Saleen got a ton of publicity in the last week because of their mod of the Model S... If they sell some cars and let their customers believe that Tesla will respect the warranty even though they play around with the software and drivetrain, when the car starts having problems Tesla might experience a backlash.”
In the wake of Saleen’s injunction, Lambert called on r/teslamotors for support and launched GoFundMe and IndieGoGo campaigns to raise money for his legal defense. Vocal Tesla investor and blogger Zachary Shahan promoted Lambert’s cause with a post at Gas2Org, presenting Lambert as a young guy who “doesn’t have much cash to his name” and a “standout commenter,” while stating that Lambert had simply shared due diligence he had done “after he considered investing in Saleen.”
Nine days after Saleen filed suit for an injunction against Lambert, Jalopnik reported that the matter was settled. According to a statement provided by Saleen:
In an update to his IndieGogo campaign, Lambert wrote, “Thank you everyone for your support. I truly appreciate it, but I will close this fundraiser and Indiegogo will reimburse everyone. I can't comment further.”
The incident thrust Lambert into the public eye just as he was raising his profile in the online Tesla fan community. He had become a moderator of r/teslamotors roughly seven months before Saleen’s lawsuit (but after he had begun making accusations against the company), and had started writing for Weintraub’s outlets just two months prior. In August of 2015, he was promoted to Head Writer at Electrek and, according to his LinkedIn profile, he singlehandedly sparked its meteoric rise:
The "Access Game" Gone Wild
Both Lambert and Weintraub seem to believe that Electrek’s rise to prominence is simply a product of a smart bet on the rising fortunes of Tesla and electric vehicles more generally (both men declined to speak to The Drive on the record), but several other media properties that bracket and overlap its positioning—InsideEVs.com, for example—have seen far less explosive growth during the same period. What then is the secret to Electrek’s success under Lambert?
According to a number of sources from different parts of the online Tesla fan community, a variety of factors seem to have contributed to Electrek’s booming readership. Some of the most regularly-cited explanations for the Electrek phenomenon seem to be interconnected, and include its close relationship with Tesla itself, its regular scoops from sources inside the company, its consistent appeal to the most hard-core of Tesla supporters and investors, its conduit to one of the largest and most vocal Tesla fan communities on the internet via Lambert’s moderator position at r/teslamotors, and the regular retweets and replies from Musk’s widely-followed Twitter account.
To critics, detractors, and short investors, these factors suggest that Electrek acts as a nominally-independent wing of Tesla’s communications team. They argue that by catering to the most loyal and passionate wing of Tesla’s and Musk’s considerable fanbase, promoting its stock’s growth prospects and defending it against critical coverage, Electrek has earned Tesla’s favor and in exchange receives favored status as an outlet for traffic-boosting exclusives and a bonanza of promotion from Musk, whose personal Twitter account has 22 million followers.
To a certain extent, this criticism is just a version of the “access game” that is a fixture of media analysis. Outlets that are more favorable to a company (or, in the case of Fox News, a political party) they cover are typically more likely to receive access from that company or public figure. A key difference for Electrek is that Tesla is an incredibly popular company, with a massive cultural footprint and a market capitalization of around $60 billion—or twice that of Audi.
Typically, outlets have to walk a line between playing the access game and maintaining enough independence to convince readers that they serve them first. But since Tesla fandom is so fervently devoted, Electrek need not worry that much about toeing this line: as far as many fans are concerned, serving Tesla is serving them.
Still, not all Tesla fans agree that the company’s interests are more important than their own, and some say that Electrek’s sycophantic coverage ultimately does a disservice to the company they love. Several prominent Tesla fans and supporters spoke with The Drive , but all wanted to remain anonymous for fear that Lambert would personally and publicly lash out at them. Each one told me that Electrek’s mix of advocacy and reporting blurs important lines between journalism and fan media, pointing out that there are sites that are upfront about being “fan sites” and more balanced sites that adhere to journalistic standards.
“He needs to pick a side,” says one pro-Tesla Electrek critic.
The controversy that unites these pro-Tesla Electrek critics with Tesla detractors and other automotive media figures is Lambert’s use of Tesla “referral codes,” an affiliate marketing scheme whereby Tesla buyers who use a referral code get a discount or perk (such as free Supercharging) and the referrer gets rewards for each sale they refer. These rewards can add up: from small stuff like free “Arachnid” wheels, toy Tesla cars, and invites to company events to the very real Tesla Powerwall (a home battery system that apparently can be exchanged for cash) and, if you refer enough purchases, even a free next-gen Tesla Roadster with a sticker price of $250,000.
These generous benefits effectively turn participants into incentivized sales lead generators (a fact that prompted California’s car dealer association to complain that the practice creates unlicensed car sales people). Other critics argue that the referral introduces a significant conflict of interest for participating media figures. Lambert’s participation in the program as he regularly breaks Tesla news has led to critical coverage from other outlets and journalists, including two
Lambert responded to Automotive News’s story with a statement, calling it “a non-story,” “filled with inaccuracies” and that “people trying to make this a ‘thing’ are either naive, malicious or misleading.” He argued that he participates in the program because he is an owner, that he doesn’t “try to hide” his participation, and that journalists criticizing him have referral links in their work as well (pointedly ignoring the distinction between his personal participation in such a program, and affiliate marketing ads placed by an outlet’s advertising department).
“Here’s the thing,” he concluded. “I’ve created some enemies in the auto publishing world because I demand attribution on [sic] my work in no uncertain terms and a few of these people show up on these sites and on twitter to trash me which I’ve grown accustomed to.”
Lambert and Weintraub have said that they haven’t received a significant percentage of the rewards that Tesla owes them, including several Powerwalls (or the cash equivalent, which ranges from $3,000 to $3,500 each), and that neither of them have earned the ultimate reward of a free $250,000 next-gen Tesla Roadster. Some of the referral rewards, like the toy car and “Arachnid” wheels were given away to Electrek readers. They also say they use referral codes to sell other cars including the Chevrolet Bolt, and as a result the focus on Tesla’s referral code is selective.
But even Tesla fans point out that Electrek’s use of referral codes doesn’t exist in a vacuum. When combined with Lambert and Weintraub’s intermittent stock ownership (both say they no longer own stock), the lack of disclosure of these conflicts on every story (per FTC disclosure standards), and the site’s hosting of a since-removed Tesla stock ticker on its front page, then a picture starts to emerge. When seen in the context of his relentlessly one-sided coverage, Lambert’s regular stories on increases in the stock price, his ardent defense of the company in the face of almost any criticism, and his relentless dings on other Tesla’s competitors in the EV space, the appearance of conflict starts to look very much like actual conflict.
Lambert’s style of coverage creates an added risk of encouraging a hard-core fan culture that gives the impression that every fan is a “cultist,” and also crowding out other important electric car stories. His criticism of other players in the space suggests his overly-cozy relationship with Tesla can actually hurt the movement as a whole. Ultimately though, only Tesla itself—and that means Musk—can reign in the increasingly toxic culture emanating from Electrek. As long as Tesla’s communications team gives Electrek favorable treatment and Musk retweets its work as an implicit endorsement, the situation won’t change.
This controversy gets to the heart of a question that has been festering at the heart of Tesla fandom for some time: does Tesla exist solely to accelerate the transition to electric transportation (a considerable feat that it has already accomplished), or does its soaring stock price mean that it has to dominate the auto industry at the expense of other companies making electric cars?
Even though this question is still largely speculative, it tends to divide the hard-core Tesla investor/fans that love Electrek from people who see themselves as electric car fans more broadly, and who wish the Tesla fan culture nurtured by Electrek would just go away.
The Problem is Fred
Ultimately, Lambert’s prickly defense of his referral code use speaks to an issue that is woven through every discussion of Electrek (including this one): Fred has a lot of enemies.
As he admitted to Automotive News, Lambert is brutally aggressive in asking other sites for attribution when they write about his “scoops” and he attacks reporters when they say that they got the same story from their own sources. Having attacked experienced and respected industry reporters for allegedly stealing his work, and then accused them of lying about having their own sources, there is no doubt that many members of the automotive media dislike Lambert personally as well as professionally.
This animosity is amplified by back-and-forth counter-accusations from other journalists who say that Lambert blatantly uses their work without attribution or linking. (The people who made these counter-accusations asked me not to list them for fear of prompting attacks by Lambert.) For his part, Lambert regularly blames such accusations on professional jealousy. But on review, the journalists seem to have real grounds for these grievances. I’ve been the new blogger on the block running an up-and-coming outlet before, and I understand the need to defend your work, but Lambert’s aggressiveness—and his unwillingness to hold himself to the standard for attribution that he demands of others—puts him even far outside the journalistic norms of online media. In many ways, he is his own (and Electrek’s) worst enemy.
Electrek is a gamble on Tesla, a bet that this one company will dominate the future of the auto industry. That bet has paid off handsomely for Weintraub and Lambert.
Encouraged by this strong performance, the two seem to believe that the inevitable success of Tesla will justify their close relationship with the company and their combative attitude towards the competition and other reporters. In this way, Electrek reflects the culture that Tesla itself has fostered: Be ambitious, aggressive, ruthless, defensive, and unapologetic.
Speaking on background, Lambert and Weintraub give the impression that they think ruffling a few feathers is the worthwhile cost of building a brave new world where they and Tesla will hold all the cards, and rake in all the money.
But it’s a major gamble. Tesla’s financial and manufacturing problems, which Electrek’s coverage regularly dismisses, could eventually have real consequences. And if the company fails, it’s hard to see Electrek not paying some kind of price for hitching its wagon so cravenly to Tesla. To a certain extent, without Tesla, all that remains of Electrek is a lot of pissed-off people waiting to say I told you so.
In Lambert and Weintraub’s mind, Electrek’s readers understand the site’s biases and just don’t care. Maybe that’s true, and that Electrek’s readers already know the dirty side of Lambert’s gamble, that his crusade against Saleen was predicated on a criticism (using deposits to fund operations makes it a Ponzi scheme) that now applies just as much to Tesla. Perhaps they know about his own Tesla stock pumping and his petty double-standard on attribution.
If they know all these things and still want to read and support Electrek, that’s their prerogative. And if they didn’t know where Electrek was coming from, at least now they do. They can never say they weren’t warned.