Computer Industry Journalists or Dime-Store Novelists?

Why the Press Has Such a Love-Hate Relationship with Apple

by David Lang (Posted: 12/16/00)

When I took a few English literature courses in college, I found that I could usually pick out which students in the class were actually majoring in English. They were the ones who were always trying to impress the professors with their insight into whatever work of literature we happened to be studying. The funny thing was that they were usually finding symbolism that wasn't really there, reading various motifs and subplots into each story, and confusing things so much that they totally missed the main point of the work.

I remember shaking my head and wondering what these people would do with their lives after they graduated college. I am now pretty sure that I know. Many of them have gone on to write the rivetingly ridiculous and tiresomely cliche scripts that characterize most television soap-operas. Those that couldn't make it into the soaps are writing commercials. Those who couldn't make it in commercials are writing the utterly inane commentary of our evening newscasts. And those who couldn't succeed there have honed their creative-writing skills while working in the computer-industry press.

How else do you explain the radical swings in the portrayal that Apple receives from most computer-industry journalists? When Apple first introduced the Macintosh, some short-sighted reviewers pooh-poohed it as nothing more than a cute graphics toy; but for the most part, Apple computer, the Macintosh, and the charismatic Steve Jobs were media darlings. Then Sculley took control, Jobs was ousted, the Mac lost its toaster-box look, Microsoft released Windows 3.1, and eventually Apple reached the point where it couldn't buy positive media coverage. No matter what Apple did, it was overshadowed by reports of its imminent demise.

Just when all the journalists were wheeling Apple to the morgue, Steve Jobs returned to the company he had founded. Jobs' coup against Gil Amelio and the bloodletting that followed were quickly denounced as "too little, too late." In the face of Jobs' my-way-or-the-highway management style, which involved projects and employees being "Steved," employee benefits being rescinded, and Apple icons such as the Advanced Technology Group being axed, Apple was said to be experiencing a "brain drain" of alarming proportions.

Then Jobs unveiled the iMac, and after the initial shock of a missing floppy drive wore off, the computer press suddenly spun on its heel and began declaring that Apple was "back." All at once Apple and the Mac (that is, the iMac) were media darlings again, and Steve Jobs was hailed as a genius and a hero. Article after article was written about the "Second Coming of Jobs" and the miraculous turnaround he had accomplished. Even long-time Mac-bashers began declaring that they were using an iMac and loving it. Once again, Apple seemed unable to do any wrong.

Then a few months ago Apple failed to meet its sales projections, and once again the press changed its tune. Mix in the first quarter since Job has been back that Apple has failed to make a profit, and now we're being told that this really is the beginning of the end for Apple. Jobs' last-ditch effort to save Apple has bought the company some time, but has ultimately failed. All the doom and gloom, downward spiral talk is being dusted off and reprinted, only now Apple's recent successes are being invoked as proof that it has now tried everything and can no longer forestall its inevitable decline into oblivion.

At first I was astounded at how quickly the computer press could contradict itself, reverse its positions, and change its story where Apple computer and the Macintosh are concerned. But then I remembered those flaky English majors in college, and it all began to make sense. You see, so many of today's "journalists" (especially those in the computer industry) are more interested in writing a "great story" than they are in reporting the truth. These people are not so concerned with finding fact and disseminating accurate information as they are with keeping up with their former classmates who managed to land those plum soap-opera script-writing jobs.

The computer journalists may not be able to write about the rich debutante who is passionately in love with the bad-boy from across the tracks, never suspecting that he is really her half-brother from her father's clandestine affair with his wife's long-lost sister who was supposed to have drowned as a child (or something like that!), but they can chronicle the dramatic story of one of the most colorful and legendary companies ever created. Whether Apple succeeds or fails makes little difference to the press, because either way it's a great story. It may ultimately prove to be a comedy, with a fabulously happy ending; or it may turn out to be a tragedy with an important moral lesson attached. But whichever way you spin it, the rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches-to-who-knows-what-next saga of Apple computer makes for entertaining reading.

Think about it. You couldn't dream up a better drama than the story of Apple computer. You've got the Horatio Alger story of two guys named Steve starting out in a garage and building a multi-billion dollar computer company virtually overnight. Of the two, one is an unassuming, lovable techie who by all accounts appears to be a genuinely good guy. The other is brash, arrogant, mercurial, charismatic, and flamboyant—a visionary with dreams of changing the world and a remarkable knack for defying the odds.

Yet the company's astounding success proves difficult to maintain. Recognizing his own limitations (which in itself is somewhat remarkable), the visionary enlists the help of an experienced executive from a more traditional business sector. For a while the duo seems unstoppable; but eventually, the relationship breaks down and a corporate power struggle ensues. The visionary finds himself ousted from the very company he helped to create, and leaves to start a new company in the hope that he can strike gold twice.

Years pass, and the company which began in a garage seems destined to return there. A series of colossal business blunders, a parade of CEOs, a seemingly endless flow of red ink, and continual talk of buyouts and hostile takeovers now mark the company which once was an American business legend. The remarkable innovation for which the company had become famous has given way to indecision and ineptitude. The Horatio Alger story has become the tragic tale of the death of an American dream.

But wait! In the eleventh hour, the visionary returns from exile to rescue the company which he once created! The turnaround which he orchestrates is so dramatic as to appear almost miraculous, and he is hailed as a savior! It seems that he has regained the Midas touch which he had in his youth, and everything he touches turns to gold.

Yet all is not well in the house of Apple. Beneath all the fanfare, there are hints that the sins of the past may again catch up to this Jeckyl-and-Hyde computer company. Is the end finally near? Or can the golden-boy of Apple computer pull off yet another miracle? Tune in next week for another installment of this continuing saga . . .

With material like this to work with, can you blame your basic English-department-flunky-turned-computer-journalist for letting the frustrated novelist inside him get the better of the responsible newsman? Apple's story is just too tantalizing to be reported dispassionately. That's why Apple will always have to deal with these dramatic swings in the way the computer press spins its current situation. And we Mac users will have to read the story of Apple with a critical eye, separating the wheat of responsible reporting from the chaff of dime-store fiction.

David Lang is CMUG's Content Editor. David works as a developer of Accordance Bible Software, and lives in Maitland, Florida with his wife and four children.