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The Boston Phoenix Rebel Geek

The media's fascination with Bill Gates reflects the myth of the entrepreneur as romantic outlaw

By Dan Kennedy

NOVEMBER 22, 1999:  One recent morning, Michael Lewis was on National Public Radio plugging his latest book, The New New Thing, a biography of high-tech visionary Jim Clark. Lewis was asked what Clark -- a mathematical genius who was the driving force behind Netscape and, before that, Silicon Graphics -- would have done with his life if he had come of age, say, during the 1920s. Lewis's answer was revealing -- not for the profundity of what he said, but rather for the way he enthusiastically, and unquestioningly, embraced one of the defining mythologies of our time: that of the entrepreneur as romantic outlaw.

Lewis told the interviewer he had asked Clark himself a question very much like that. "He gave me the answer I thought was the answer: he'd be in jail," Lewis said. "This is a profoundly antisocial character. He's sitting outside of society, trying to figure out how to tip it on its side and change it somehow. It happens that the market is channeling these instincts in such a way that it may be for the better of society, but these instincts are antisocial. These instincts are revolutionary."

No doubt Clark and Lewis are intoxicated by their own hyperbole, but they are hardly alone. The business leader as dangerous revolutionary is one of the animating ideas of the late 1990s. And it has a lot to do with why the war between Microsoft and the federal government has become the subject of such endless public discussion.

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is hardly the most revolutionary corporate titan (although he is, by most accounts, among the most antisocial). But he is by far the best known: the richest man in the United States; the godfather of Windows, installed on more than 90 percent of Intel-based personal computers; the subject, tangentially at least, of an annoying 1995 novel (Douglas Coupland's Microserfs); and the geeky symbol of both the Information Age and the stock-market bounty it has produced.

And now, unlike that pretender Jim Clark, Gates stands on the verge of being declared a genuine, certified outlaw.

Thus it's not surprising that US District Court judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's November 5 "finding of fact" that Microsoft is, indeed, a monopoly has emerged as the media's signature story of 1999 -- the natural successor, in a sense, to O.J. Simpson, JonBenet Ramsey, and Monica Lewinsky.

Jackson's ruling not only led papers of record such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe, but was blared across the tabloid press as well, from the New York Post (JUDGE BYTES BILL) to the Boston Herald (MICROSHOCK). (Because the decision came on a Friday evening, the weekdays-only Wall Street Journal was cut out of the immediate action, and played the story inside on Monday.) The Big Three networks gave it a total of 12 minutes that Friday evening -- five minutes more than the next-biggest story, the search for the black box from EgyptAir Flight 990, according to Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the Tyndall Report. Of the three US newsmagazines, Time and U.S. News & World Report led with Microsoft, and Newsweek gave it a sizable cover tease. A number of news-oriented Web sites put Jackson's highly technical 207-page decision online, as though it were The Starr Report II: The Intern Strikes Back.

Even more telling than the quantity of coverage has been the unusually high quality. It surely says something about the culture that, at a time when many people can't even name their congressman, news organizations have provided detailed explanations of the relationship between middleware and operating systems, the difference between a finding of fact and a finding of law, and the effects that various possible outcomes (breaking up Microsoft, releasing Windows into the public domain, and the like) would have on both consumers and investors.

"An outbreak of substance," quips Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, adding: "When there's real news, it's a slap in the face, and you rediscover that in some ways the press is better than it's ever been."

But though the Microsoft anti-trust case surely is "real news," it's more than that. It's a celebrity story about a man with immeasurable wealth -- a man who has run his company as though the rules don't apply to him, and who is now being called to account. It's a consumer story about products that tens of millions of people use every day -- products that can be as aggravating as they are ubiquitous. (The New Republic's John Judis recently called for the break-up of Microsoft because "I have had nothing but grief from Bill Gates's vaunted products." Take that, Bill!) And it's news you can use: Newsweek/Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson reported last week that 48 percent of US households now own stocks or mutual funds, up from just 19 percent in 1983. Microsoft has been a favorite among the millions of small players who've entered the market during the past few years, and news about the company affects them personally. (Me too: I own some shares of Microsoft and of America Online, one of Microsoft's principal antagonists in the anti-trust case.)

Not surprisingly, the Microsoft discussion board has been the busiest forum at the Motley Fool -- a Web site for individual stock traders that attracts two million "unique visitors" per month -- since Judge Jackson handed down his decision, according to Chris Hill, a Fool spokesman. "I think it's very reflective of the culture," says Hill of the media's obsession with Microsoft. "It's reflective of the fact that more and more people are owning stocks and are interested in business." Adds John Ellis, a business consultant and columnist for Fast Company magazine: "It's all about the fascination people have with the stock market and money."

Then, too, there is the simple fact that people feel passionately about Microsoft. The Windows-versus-Macintosh war was decided in Gates's favor years ago, yet it rages on, as though the subject were whether Roger Clemens really had a blister in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series. Brock Meeks, chief Washington correspondent for MSNBC.com, works for Mr. Bill, and thus finds it particularly difficult to chart a credible course between the pro- and anti-Microsoft partisans. "People have this real kind of knee-jerk reaction about what should happen to Bill Gates's life," Meeks says. "I have people calling me a running dog for Gates or saying, 'Yeah, stick it to the rat bastard.' Because computers are such a part of our everyday lives now, everyone has an opinion of whether they love or hate Microsoft."

Indeed, the Microsoft case appears to be something people can't talk enough about. John VanScoyoc, the producer of New England Cable News's NewsNight, has done 15 programs on Microsoft during the past five years. "That's a pretty good tally for a show that tries not to repeat itself," he says. David Brudnoy, host of the evening talk show on WBZ Radio, did a segment on Microsoft after Jackson's decision and reports that the switchboard lit up with callers -- "all of them men, all of them informed, all of them technically oriented." Adds Emily Rooney, host of WGBH-TV's Greater Boston: "Everybody has some relation to Microsoft. Remember the trial regarding Xerox? Nobody covered that."

Unfortunately, the appeal of the Microsoft story is unique, which suggests that the "outbreak of substance" Tom Rosenstiel cited will not soon infect other stories. Rosenstiel himself is under no such delusions, saying, "We know how to do a good job. The problem is that we're under a lot of pressure to do other things."

While millions learn why Linux may be a better solution for corporate servers than Windows NT, the presidential race will no doubt continue to be defined by George W. Bush's skill at foreign-policy pop quizzes, Al Gore's quest for alpha dominance, Bill Bradley's old basketball buddies, and John McCain's penchant for shooting his mouth off. This is, after all, the age of the businessman as counterculture hero -- an age in which politics is seen as the preoccupation of the small-minded and the unambitious. We live vicariously through entrepreneurial outlaws such as Jim Clark and Bill Gates, measuring our own hip subversiveness (to borrow an idea from Tom Frank, editor of the Baffler) against what we imagine theirs to be.

Yet at the same time that the media focus critically on Gates's efforts to build a software monopoly, they all but celebrate their own efforts to build a culture monopoly. Norman Solomon, who writes the syndicated column "MediaBeat," argues that coverage of the Microsoft case has been so sophisticated mainly because there were powerful players on several sides of the issue: Microsoft was opposed not only by the federal government, but by huge corporations such as Netscape, Intel, Sun, and AOL (which acquired Netscape while the anti-trust trial was under way).

"If you didn't have that dynamic, this would be a much less legitimized story in the mass media," Solomon says. By way of example, he points to the recent merger of Viacom and CBS, an enormous concentration of TV, radio, and cable networks, and a vast storehouse of programming as well. In scanning media accounts in the first 24 hours after the merger was announced, Solomon says, "I could not find a critical quote or statement from anyone about it."

Danny Schechter, a progressive media activist, wonders why the federal government would pursue an anti-trust case against Microsoft rather than Viacom-CBS, Time Warner-CNN, Disney-ABC, or General Electric-NBC. Bad as Microsoft's behavior was, the fast pace of technological change could make whatever solution Judge Jackson decides to impose obsolete within a matter of months. By contrast, Mel Karmazin, the top executive of Viacom-CBS, will have a stranglehold on content for many years to come. That stranglehold will only get tighter if he's able to persuade regulators to let him add NBC to his collection of holdings, a goal he discussed in a notably uncritical profile in the New York Times this past Sunday.

"If they [federal anti-trust prosecutors] won a victory against Microsoft, maybe it's time to go after Mel Karmazin," says Schechter. "But that's unlikely."

And that says something important about the media as well. Because the case against Microsoft's software monopoly proceeded beneath the gaze of an attentive but neutral press, which allowed the story to unfold and develop over a period of years.

That would certainly not be true if the feds decided to go after the media monopolies. After all, Bill Gates is merely a revolutionary, an outlaw who broke the rules and got caught. Mel Karmazin -- and Michael Eisner, Gerald Levin, Jack Welch, Rupert Murdoch, and the Newhouse brothers -- are far more powerful, far more intimidating, far more accustomed to getting their way in Washington. Then, too, what government official would want to piss off a corporation that could destroy her career with one newscast?

The Microsoft case was useful for showing that anti-trust law still exists. But there is little evidence that government has the will to use it against the far more insidious monopolists who control what we know and, ultimately, how we think.


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