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I Talked to Elon Musk about Journalism and the Blood Emeralds Story
“If people are going to dislike me, I’d prefer they do so for what I’ve actually done.”
I reckon this stance is something like a decoder ring to Elon’s relationship with both the press and all those who’ve outsourced their judgment about him in that direction. Few individuals are written about as often, and almost none are less likely to escape that coverage unscathed. Some of that is deserved. Some isn’t. Which brings us here.
There’s a particular story that bothers him a lot. A myth really. One that started with an interview done with his father back in 2018.
While there are a few variations now, the common features go something like:
Errol Musk owns/owned an emerald mine in Africa
Said mine was connected to apartheid
The profits thereof were material to the family’s wealth
Elon then leveraged said wealth to launch his career
What follows is about a few things: the truth, how the story got spun, the cost of misinformation, and why so many journalists seem curiously indifferent to those costs.
For the TLDR crowd, the upshot is that Errol has a story (that hasn’t been and likely can’t be corroborated) about an informal stake in a Zambian emerald deposit in the 80s. The deal had nothing to do with apartheid, and the lifetime income generated, depending which version of Errol’s story you believe, might pay for one or two Tesla Roadsters today. But any flow of emeralds had already ended by the time that Elon left South Africa at 17 with $2,000* in his pockets to begin some very lean years in Canada.
The more interesting story here though is less the myth itself and more how it came to be, and why this sort of thing keeps happening.
(* See minor footnote at end. There’s some dispute about the exact amount, in a narrow and not very meaningful range.)
Reader Note: This story came to my attention as I was chatting with Team Elon in connection to my coverage of Neuralink’s summer press event. I’ve tried to be scrupulously fair to all involved. If anyone spots an error or unsubstantiated bit of framing, I’ll pay you for telling me. Anonymous feedback / correction requests can be submitted here.
Let’s start with the US headline of the first one (original South African edition here):
This first article only mentions the supposed Zambian deal in passing, and instead centers on two related things:
An alleged outing where teen brothers Elon and Kimbal sold a pair of emeralds to Tiffany’s in NYC for ~$2,000 USD
An anecdote about the family having such profound wealth that closing the safe sometimes took multiple people and attempts (where the details of that anecdote are physically impossible in a rather obvious way)
But note the story’s postscript:
BI SA reached out to Elon for confirmation of the tale, but he did not respond. Father and son have a complicated history.
That second sentence gives the sense of why we might want to interpret this story with some real caution. And the first invites a question about why it is that Elon might have been disinclined to comment.
But put a pin in those as we consider the original headline for the second article:
Three problems here:
Proof of even past ownership/partnership was never established
The emerald deposit, if real, apparently stopped producing some 30 years prior
Father and son are famously estranged, and have been for decades
So really the story here is something like “retired local businessman claims he made an unremarkable profit on a somewhat exotic investment back in the 80s; here’s the unusual story of how that investment may have come to be”.
Of course, that story wouldn’t get much traction. So Business Insider anchored the articles to the retired man’s estranged (but remarkably famous) son, via two means:
A colorful anecdote sourced to only the father (which, if it happened as described, you’d have expected the sons to have mentioned over the years)
A supposed chain of connection between the emeralds, the family’s wealth, and Elon’s later success, again sourced to only the father
Note in the second case though that no discernible effort was made to actually investigate or flesh out any such chain. So even if we set aside the wildly misleading headline, it’s still difficult to see which journalistic mission these articles meant to be consistent with. If this isn’t clickbait, what exactly are we supposed to call it?
But about that headline. While it was eventually corrected, it took them 29 months. It was updated between July 28th and August 15th 2020, and only once Elon asked the author directly. And while it’s true that journalists don’t write their own headlines, it’s also true that they’re hardly powerless when a grossly incorrect one is attached to an article with their name on the byline. If I can’t get my employer to care about that, I have the wrong employer. And if I don’t care about it, I’m the wrong employee.
Anyway, the best thing I can say about the reporting here is that it wasn’t fully responsible for what followed. Business Insider didn’t itself make the apartheid connection. Indeed they didn’t get into that (rather predictable) angle at all. Which is a shame, as even the barest digging there would have surfaced some useful context.
But before we get to that context, here are a few examples of how this story has been framed on bluecheck twitter this year:
(Substack’s editor doesn’t show the verification checkmarks for some reason. But you can click through to see them.)
(In fairness, one of those guys worked as a reporter years ago, one primarily covers sports, and one seems to be an activist who just writes the odd op-ed. But the last tweet was retweeted by a Pulitzer finalist, and I couldn’t find any examples of a journalist trying to set this record straight. And as we’ll get into, professional Elon coverage tends to present him in a way that conditions readers to believe the worst of him. The unsurprising net result of all this being that searching ”Musk” + “apartheid” on Twitter gets you many thousands of results, most of them severely negative. It’s a classic “no raindrop believes itself responsible for the flood” problem.)
Anyway, here’s what they all missed (per my discussions with Elon’s family, including Errol, and a public Facebook post):
Elon and Kimbal both left South Africa in part to avoid mandatory service in the apartheid-affirming South African army, abhoring the idea of their contributions being used on the wrong side of a possible civil war (though they also had other motivations for leaving, including their larger concerns with the culture that was so deeply shaped by the attitudes that drove apartheid itself)
Errol himself was elected as a city councillor in 1972 with an anti-apartheid affiliation, and twice ran for parliament for an opposition party
So while it’s generally true that all white people in South Africa benefited from apartheid in some ambient sense, if we’re going to talk about the Musk family’s relationship with South African politics specifically, we ought to ground that discussion in an admission that the family took meaningful risks to explicitly oppose a power structure they disagreed with. And in the case of Errol’s sons, they both voted with their feet and left their homeland at first opportunity, little security in hand.
(I asked Kimbal if a reporter had ever reached out to him to ask about the emeralds or apartheid or any of this. No one ever had. And Elon couldn’t recall any other requests either, though he admitted with the volume of questions he gets that it’s possible.)
Anyway, let’s finish deconstructing the myth by looking at what we do know.
About the emerald deposit itself:
Being precise, Errol had (in his own words) "very limited involvement”. From the way he put it to me, it was a handshake deal with a Panamanian man that resulted in something like 110 emeralds up front and then a semi-regular trickle of rough stones over a few years following. There was never formal ownership.
There’s no paperwork for any of this, making it impossible to corroborate. (Errol said the man in question passed away in 2019, but that perhaps his widow could comment. While I have yet to hear anything from her, I’ll update if/as I do. Elon recalls seeing a small jewel box of low-quality emeralds in his youth, but no familial mention of a mining stake prior to Business Insider’s story coming out.)
Per Errol, the deal was struck in the mid 80s and lasted until 1989, at which point the flow of emeralds ceased entirely (he says because of economic infeasibility based on competition from synthetics out of Russia).
The supposed deposit was in Zambia, which at the time of the deal was already some 20 years removed from British rule. (The ruling party of that era, UNIP, was also a ringleader of regional anti-apartheid / anti-colonialist activity.)
Despite the voluminous number of tweets you can find referencing “blood emeralds” + “Musk”, Zambia was not a conflict gem country.
As for the wealth produced over those ~5 years:
Per Errol’s report to Elon’s family office, total lifetime profits* of his stake came to ~$400k USD (2021 dollars), representing a total return of a bit over 2x his total investment. (Though Errol also quoted a lower number to me over the phone. He also claims he was getting emeralds from other sources, with only 60-70% coming from this venture. As there are no ledgers to consult, there’s no easy way to adjudicate any of this. Though I take him at his word that he did get some emeralds from various sources, and that he sold some of them as a side hustle to generate a modest amount of off-books cash as a sort of adventure hobby.)
While any income thereof might have been timely (Errol’s other businesses began collapsing in the late 80s as the economy tanked), it wouldn’t have been a substantial part of his career earnings. And anyway his idea of wealth was mostly lifestyle maintenance, with said wealth steadily dwindling over his children’s teen years, eventually ending in his bankruptcy in the 2000s. (Elon and Kimbal have been financially supporting him and his dependents since.)
[EDIT 05/20/21 - In reviewing my notes today, I made a mistake here. That ~$400k figure, which could be +/- a bit either way based on the difficulties of marking 1980s money to today, was revenues, not profits. More details here.]
As for how this wealth fed into later success:
Elon left in 1989, at 17, with $2,000 USD*. As he recalls it*, Errol told him he’d fail and return in three months. (Cue Michael Jordan: “and I took that personally”.)
Elon, determined to keep his old life behind him, slept on couches of distant relatives, did farmhand and labor work, and lived very cheaply.
When his mother and sister followed him to Canada in 1990 (with Kimbal joining in 1991 after he finished high school), they ended up in a small rent-controlled apartment in Toronto. When Elon visited he didn’t even get his own bed.
Elon left university with around $100k USD in student debt. He’d otherwise covered expenses along the way via scholarships, engineering internships, college campus jobs, and a number of other entrepreneurial gambits.
(As an aside, one of his college roommates, Adeo Ressi, shared an anecdote with me during my fact-checks that made me laugh. I share it here with his permission.)
One of the main reasons that [Elon] was interested in being my roommate was because I wanted to run an underground nightclub in our house. The money that came from this activity allowed him to pay for rent and food.
Here is one story about how poor he was at the time. When we moved into our first house (which became the nightclub), I bought a rusty desk at Goodwill for well under $100 that I converted into an art piece in an empty room.
I had spray painted it fluorescent colors, turned it on the side and placed an old cathode ray tube on top. It looked great in a black light. One day, I walked in the door, casually strolling upstairs, and noticed that the desk was missing. I smelled spray paint from Elon’s room.
I charged in to Elon’s room, and saw him working at the desk, which was now spray painted black. Using a wide variety of expletives, I asked what he was doing, to which he responded, “I needed a desk, and I could not afford one. A desk is a desk."
Most of the furniture in our house was found, built or salvaged. It was not uncommon for us to keep beer kegs and re-use them as furniture.
(To be clear, the two were and are close. This wasn’t a real point of contention. I just found the idea of a college kid saying “a desk is a desk” really amusing for some reason. Though less amusing than the idea of Elon drawing up some super-serious startup plan on 90s-style fluorescent art furniture with a rager going on behind him.)
Anyway, the unanimous testimony I got (which fits with the public record) was that Elon was painfully thrifty and had a high appetite for unglamorous work. And I don’t take these to be common qualities among those reliant on their family wealth.
Questions of Privilege
As a quick aside here, if you dive into the “how privileged was he really” rabbithole, you’ll come across two arguments that seem kinda persuasive at first blush:
That Elon still benefited from the family wealth in a formative sense
That Elon still benefited from a theoretical safety net
While there’s obviously something to those arguments, here’s why I don’t find them all that compelling:
There’s privilege and there’s net privilege. The great scales weigh debits as well as credits. Being reared in a home where engineering was a regular (if over-aggressive) talking point would be a credit, sure. Same for being a white South African, building professional confidence early, having access to books and computers at a young age, and having the “can move to Canada” lifeline. But having to leave home forever as a solo 17 year old after a childhood of self-reliance and deep trauma needs to get factored too. When folks reflexively say “but privilege though”, I suspect they’ve given little thought to the second scale.
(Having learned more about his early life, I don’t imagine that many would be keen to have traded places. Elon was hesitant about me mentioning much here, as he really doesn’t want to appeal to any special sympathy. All I can say is that people who leave home early without looking back generally do so for a reason.)
Elon’s relationship with his father was and is difficult. I respect their privacy in keeping that vague. But everyone I spoke with agreed that Elon’s consistent position over those years was that returning was not an option, and that he never acted in a way consistent with factoring a safety net. (He was ultra-conservative with spending, spun up low-capital businesses, always diversified risks, etc.)
All said, to discount Elon’s success much on account of these things seems a curious and not especially good faith reading of the data. The positives matter. The negatives matter. A healthy and fair telling of any story accounts for both. And on the balance I see less of a story of unusual privilege here, and more one of unusual determination.
(In the interests of full disclosure, I was made aware of one transfer of money from Errol after the boys left home. He contributed somewhere between $20-30k USD into Zip2 in December of 1995*, well after the business began, and about a month before they closed a round for ~100x that. Though no shares were ever exchanged, the sons returned their father something like $400k USD when Zip2 got acquired in 1999.)
Many have wondered why Elon gives a shit about this particular myth. Shouldn’t all his billions buy better distractions?
You’ll get three answers from him and those close to him:
#1: He’s concerned about the moral implications (blood emeralds, apartheid, etc.)
Mind you, this isn’t just about him. Elon is the public face of several large orgs and at least two entire industries. Negative myths have an impact on recruiting, morale, partnerships, etc. If top talent is put off from working with him because of manufactured controversy (as opposed to legitimate criticism for bad things he’s said/done), that’s a net loss for anyone who would benefit from what his companies do.
#2: He hates that journalists/outlets can get away with printing bullshit (and that so many choose bullshit over producing content that’s actually net useful to society)
Even the most charitable version of Business Insider’s reporting here is still pretty bad. In both articles the author explicitly drew arrows from the emeralds to Elon’s later success based wholly on unverified anecdotes from someone with a complicated relationship to the subject. This approach is typical of bullshit. One doesn’t have to set out to lie or mislead. The author was just the first in a cascade of people who each took little liberties in their turn, each with a general shrug as to whether what they were saying was actually true and what the costs might be if they were wrong.
#3: He cares a lot about encouraging people to do useful things for humanity, and feels that these stories are unhelpful to those ends
This is a deep problem within tech journalism right now (for a particularly holy shit case, see What Journalists Say When No One Is Watching). Considering the high-scale impact that tech has on the world (good and bad!), we should want our best candidates to bring their best, secure in the knowledge that they don’t need privilege to apply and that what they build won’t be attacked without cause. And where founders do give real cause for criticism, that ought to be measured and fair, else the legitimate criticism will become less believed and the truly bad folks will get away with their awfulness.
All said, I perceive powerful reasons for Elon to care here. Indeed for him not to get a bit heated with this sort of narrative would actually be pretty irresponsible.
There's an old saw about journalism being "the first draft of history". Well, two things about that:
First drafts in most contexts are provisional, error-prone, and not very good
Journalism rarely produces second drafts
While there’s a necessary tradeoff here for some forms of breaking news, many stories really don’t need to be told all that quickly. If the first draft is all we’re likely to get (where any subsequent coverage will just rehash deferentially), we need to make it count. And doubly so when covering subjects our profession has done wrong by prior.
Now sit with that truism as you consider this excerpt from a 2020 Vanity Fair writeup (which is referencing Vern Unsworth’s defamation suit again Elon, which came as part of the Thai cave rescue aftermath):
[After the not guilty verdict was announced] Musk went to Twitter and started blocking many of the reporters who had covered the trial or his companies. …
According to one person who worked with Musk through this whole escapade, he decided shortly after he won the case that he was finished trying to be nice to the journalists, seeing them as biased against him. (How very Trump of him.)
Beyond the Trump jab, notice the stunning lack of interest in establishing whether the underlying premise might be true. What if journalists are biased against him?
Now, to be clear, writing a negative story obviously isn’t a biased action in itself! We do well to judge public figures where they err, and to call power to account. And Musk has certainly made some big mistakes. He’s tweeted recklessly. He’s succumbed to frustrations. He’s followed bad impulses to bad places. Thing is though, I’ve never sensed any objection in him to this idea of civic accountability. I’ve never heard him suggest that the importance of his work should immunize him from reasonable criticism. What he’s repeatedly asked for is fairness and diligence — for those covering him and his companies to put real effort into telling full stories well so that readers can judge thoughtfully (and so that he himself can reflect). This seems, uh, reasonable?
I covered that Thai cave story (part 1; part 2). Virtually every step in the mainstream coverage was a clinic in bad faith journalism, and pretty much every major outlet was complicit. All were keen to point out that Elon had said a mean/bad thing. None were keen to look at why it ever happened. (If we agree that a bad thing is bad, we should care about what led to the bad thing! In this case the context doesn’t exonerate Elon. But boy does it change the picture.)
The experience of being defensively shit on by journalists for writing that part 1 (as recounted in part 2) led me to document more examples of bias in mainstream coverage of Musk and his companies. See here and here.
(I share these examples because I’ve personally put the work into vetting all of them, and can thus happily stand behind them with my standard wallet-where-my-mouth-is corrections policy. But I have notes for a dozen more, and there are serious examples elsewhere that seem to at least be true about a few very big things.)
Two reasons this matters:
When people argue that Elon is one of the truly bad people in tech, they say things like “well look how many bad stories there are”. But that’s a bit like having a barrel of apples, and then when someone comes along and pulls out a rotten one, and then another, and then another, you just reply with “ok but those are the exceptions”. The nature of what rot is should be something of a clue for why this is not the rational view. If most of their stories about him were good/right, journalists would have a point about Elon’s rottenness. But if most proved bad/wrong, he’d have a point about their rottenness. As happens though, the only way to tell which of these narratives is fairer is to do deep dives like this and then open them up for correction. But most journalists do not want to do this.
If you develop an audience both capable of believing the worst about someone and eager for further validation, you create a predictable cycle.
This isn't to say every story about him is wrong on all points. Or equally wrong. But my sense is that a substantial number are indeed rotten — i.e., so slanted against the subject that the critical reader has no reason to have faith in the story as true/fair. And not having the tools to know exactly which parts might be slanted, most are thus forced to lean on their existing biases anyway, which are often themselves predicated on untrue things they’ve read in the past!
I trust we see the problem here.
I find it perplexing that so many journalists were (appropriately) breathless about HBO’s Chernobyl, yet seem to have not grasped the full implications of its chief moral: that misinformation has a severe cost. Many seem to imagine that this only applies to very bold lies, and not to more general bullshit. But the costs of wrongness are not dependent on motive! People make worse decisions when they’re misinformed, which is true somewhat regardless of how that came to be. And given that the point of journalism is supposedly getting to the truth of important and timely things so that people can make good decisions, this type of coverage is a real problem.
Of course, journalists are people too. I like many of them! As does Elon! I imagine that very few of them wake up in the morning with ill intent or a conscious sense that what they’re doing is actually feeding the information crisis. The actual villain, so to speak, is a lack of controls (tied to broken incentives and distribution models etc). Even so, we are not a well-informed society, and journalism is a core institution that we’re depending on to propagate light. I thus imagine the world would be far better served with less defensiveness here and more hard thinking about how myths like this one came to be, and what a better model for journalism might look like.
EDITS 05-20-21 - See self-correction above about the ~$400k figure being revenues. More on that here. Also three footnotes from an exchange with Errol back in March: (1) He recalls giving Elon the money in South African Rand when he left for Canada, and that it exchanged to “US$4,000, perhaps a bit less”. I didn’t bother going back to Elon about it because the difference is too slight to be meaningful in context. I note it now only for completeness. (2) He disputes the bit about telling Elon that he’d fail and return. I’d already qualified with “as [Elon] recalls it” in the original, so it wasn’t a statement of fact either way. What precisely was said some 32 years ago is obviously beyond my powers to adjudicate. Each man has their memory. Readers can decide. (3) He says the Zip2 money was sent in August 1995, not December. He acknowledges this wasn’t what he told me on the phone originally, and it’s difficult to reconcile this with the testimony of others. Again I make these footnotes for completeness only.
Producing these stories takes a lot of work. If you believe in this approach to positive journalism reform, a paid subscription is $5/mo. Current funding will go towards adding admin/research help so that I can increase output.
The header artwork comes from Daniela Meyer. She’s great, and more people should hire her. She also wants readers to know that, yes, emeralds are indeed cut in the traditional diamond shape sometimes, and that she likes the look better.