An Alleged Affair to Remember

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google. Photo: Brooks Kraft LLC/Getty Images

From the moment it was published last Sunday, The Wall Street Journal’s double-bylined “WSJ News Exclusive” bombshell report, inelegantly but comprehensively headlinedElon Musk’s Friendship with Sergey Brin Ruptured by Alleged Affair,” set off a nuclear explosion in the adjacent industries of technology, finance, media, philanthropy, and the celebrity industrial complex. It also set off a series of cascading questions about the article of journalism, itself: What counts as an affair? What is an“alleged affair”? And then: How could the reporters possibly know? And last but not least: Why did the Journal, the classy establishment business bible, publish this very personal piece in the first place?

In modern times, salacious details about the alleged sex lives of moguls tend to be unearthed by The Daily Mail or The National Enquirer, or by TMZ, which recently published exclusive photos of an Adonis-like Ari Emanuel hosing down Musk on a yacht off Mykonos. “How is this a Journal story?” more than a few media executives muttered aloud after its publication. Musk tweeted that the Journal had gone “way sub tabloid.” Many of the paper’s biggest critics in the business community, as well as a few Friends of Elon similarly accused the paper of falling to tacky standards when we spoke to them—and this was before Elon Musk and Nicole Shanahan, Brin’s ex and the woman implicated in the story, issued their strongly worded denials and effectively accused the paper of defamation. 

Neither party is actually suing the Journal for defamation yet, we’re told. Shanahan’s lawyer, Bryan Freedman, is likely to pursue greater insight into this matter during the discovery process of Shanahan and Brin’s ongoing divorce proceedings. The bar for establishing defamation is high and depends on the demonstration of actual malice, but the hiring of a powerhouse litigator like Freedman suggests that Shanahan—a lawyer herself, and a private person who is in her mid-30s and ascendant in her career—is sending a shot across the bow.

Divorces, of course, can be newsworthy to a business journal, particularly when there are consequences for the corporations or estates of the parties involved. The Journal, it should be noted, recently covered the divorce of its owner, Rupert Murdoch, from Jerry Hall, seemingly in the interest of establishing that the separation would have no effect on Murdoch’s control over Fox Corp. and News Corp. It also covered the divorce between Bill and Melinda Gates—and the Jeffrey Epstein ties that partly precipitated it—because the dissolution had real impacts on the 2,000 or so people who work at their foundation, along with the Gates peers who work with The Giving Pledge. There was at least the semblance of a business angle, fairly high up in this piece: Sergey, allegedly hurt by his friend’s alleged affair with the woman he is in process of divorcing, had tantalizingly “ordered his financial advisers to sell his personal investments in Mr. Musk’s companies.”

But if this seems like a fig leaf to justify the exposure of private individuals’ alleged private affairs, perhaps that has to do with the way the Journal story was handled. The “brief affair,” also described as a “liaison,” was indeed the subject of the story, rather than a detail in some broader investigation into Musk or Brin or their frayed relationship. (The piece’s title makes this plainly clear.) Meanwhile, the real consequences of the rupture between Elon and Sergey were left unclear: how much money had Sergey invested in Elon’s companies? Would it have any material effect? (“It couldn’t be learned how large those investments are, or whether there have been any sales,” the Journal reported.) If Sergey was, say, on the board of Tesla and had made the decision to resign from his seat over his issues with Elon, few would have batted an eye at the Journal’s coverage.

An honest assessment of the Journal article must recognize that its ostensible reason for existence was the alleged “affair” itself, which was relevant simply because it involves two of the most powerful people in the world, now worth a combined $350 billion according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. One can commend the Journal for eschewing archaic notions of decorum and refusing to bury the lede, or one can similarly admonish them. Either way, the existence of the story points to a shift in the state of business journalism during the Era of Elon. Today, in the wake of #MeToo (an extremely important story) and Epstein (an extremely important story) and Bezos’s dick pics in the Enquirer (debatable), the sex lives and libidos of America’s most powerful men—including, in Elon’s case, how many children they have fathered—are apparently once again relevant to the mainstream press. “The amount of attention on me has gone supernova, which super sucks,” Musk tweeted this week. “Unfortunately, even trivial articles about me generate a lot of clicks.” (Musk, Brin and Shanahan aren’t commenting further.)

What Constitutes an “Affair”?

In the case of this story, of course, the gossiping gentry is still left with the mystery of whether or not the alleged affair actually happened. The level of detail in the story, which we’re told was being worked on for at least several weeks, is compelling, but the denials—albeit only provided after publication—put the Journal in the hot seat. Musk says the story is “total B.S.”; that “nothing romantic” ever happened between him and Shanahan; and that he and Brin are still friends, allegedly as evidenced by a photo Musk shared of the two of them standing nearby each other at a party last weekend. (Unsurprisingly, Musk has subsequently attacked a Wall Street Journal editor on Twitter who had nothing to do with the story, but who tweeted the new piece and has been involved in previous stories about Musk and Tesla.) Shanahan has shot back too, via Freedman: “Make no mistake, any suggestion that Nicole had an affair with Elon Musk is not only an outright lie but also defamatory,” he said in a statement. Meanwhile, the Journal is standing firm: “We are confident in our sourcing, and we stand by our reporting.” What are we supposed to do with that?

Some media types doing a close reading of the statements from Musk and Shanahan are wise to note that the denials are not quite airtight. Musk and his lawyer have been asked to more literally dispute the alleged incident, which was said to have taken place during Art Basel in Miami, and they haven’t replied. Similarly, the statement from Freedman says it is an “outright lie” that “an affair” occurred, but doesn’t specifically dispute the incident in question. Some, to be sure, will see that as splitting hairs, and the Journal does itself no favors with abstruse language like “liaison” that doesn’t even make clear what the Journal’s sources are alleging. 

But every journalist and P.R. professional knows that specific words matter enormously, and you have to wonder whether there is some sleight-of-hand going on with the denials. Would it be an “affair” if Brin and Shanahan were in the process of separating? Would it be an “affair” if their marriage was open, as is true of the marriages of many people in both of their social circles? Is there some Bill Clinton-esque locution at work here? And we won’t even venture to guess what it means for a relationship to be “romantic.” But either way, in journalism, you either have it or you don’t, and the Journal either didn’t fully have it or couldn’t adequately explain what they actually had.

Too much, meanwhile, has been made of Brin’s silence. First of all, Brin likely would not have first-hand cognizance of the allegation in question: Whether he believes or was told an affair took place, he can’t confirm it independently, which is the standard for this kind of reporting. Secondly, it’s important to understand Brin’s public profile these days: He has not quite extinguished himself from the public consciousness a la Larry Page, but Sergey has come close to vanishing. His life now largely revolves around the exclusive tech conference circuit—he is a regular at TED (including this year in Vancouver, which Elon also attended, spurring some speculation of a showdown there), at Burning Man (which Elon also frequents), and was spotted at a stealth get-together hosted by Jeffrey Katzenberg in May (Elon was there, too, but on a different day)—as well as exotic trips to his homes and yachts, and around his few philanthropic pursuits, including a disaster-relief organization he started a few years ago. 

But Brin is almost never seen in public. So it is not conspicuous that he has not weighed in here—he weighs in on nothing. For instance, despite some media pressure for the Russian Jewish refugee to comment about the war and refugee crisis in Ukraine, or about Russia’s crackdown on Internet freedoms, he declined. The sole statement that Brin has made about anything these days, really, was when he happened to be spotted, alongside Shanahan, at SFO amid the protests of Trump’s “Muslim Ban.” “I’m here because I’m a refugee,” he told some reporters. 

Nevertheless, it is true that Brin hasn’t disputed the report. Is it possible that Brin, indirectly, was a source, by complaining about what he believed to be an affair to friends or associates, who then turned and leaked it to the Journal? Sure, and that might even fit with Elon’s public utterance that Sergey and/or his aides had not proactively leaked it or talked to the Journal, which we have no reason to doubt. Sergey’s side might have an incentive to have this out there during divorce negotiations, but he and Shanahan have a kid together and one imagines that people surrounding the co-founder of Google have better ways to negotiate. Either way, would that third-hand sourcing of an affair be enough for the risk-averse Journal to press publish? You’d think not. 

The challenge with establishing an affair took place, of course, is that only two people can definitively corroborate it. And that is one reason why these stories are so rare. To that end, one possibility floated centers on the rather cinematic detail of Elon’s apology to Sergey at a party earlier this year: What if someone overheard Elon admit it? Might that be enough confirmation? Not on its own, but combined with other third-hand reports from Sergey’s friends? Still, even if that’s the case, that seems debatable to justify publication. Another possibility: Perhaps the Journal has obtained, but cannot reference, sealed divorce docs that lay this all out.

Where do things go from here? One would think the Journal is likely working to confirm and add to the story as much as possible, if only to protect itself from future litigation. Elon, being Elon, likely beats on as he always has—seemingly indestructible, thriving in his own media echo chamber, impervious to what the Wall Street Journal says about him. And Sergey, for his part, eventually can slink away back to resplendent anonymity. 

The person whose life has been truly transformed is Shanahan, an up-and-coming Silicon Valley philanthropist on the cusp of a larger step into the public spotlight for her political work as a Democratic donor and charitable work on reproductive longevity. She will almost certainly see her profile altered by the media obsession with these two men. Already, she has likely been forced to hire up to deal with the Journal story, which has made her life much more complicated than it was just one month ago when she spoke with Puck, or one year ago, when she was inviting Elon and Sergey to her birthday party in New York. One presumes that the Journal weighed heavily the consequences on her life before publication, since the very existence of a story about an alleged affair can seem like a scarlet letter on the Internet. Even if the Journal was right, were they fair?