Let's Get This Straight: Profiles in cluelessness

The New Yorker's portrait of PointCast displays once more the magazine's Internet ignorance.

By Scott Rosenberg
Published November 10, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Once upon a time -- say, in 1994 -- it seemed that the chief division among journalists writing about technology and media was between those who'd heard of the Internet and those who hadn't. Then the Internet became a household word, and journalists split between those who viewed it as a cataclysmic revolutionary force and those who saw it as an overhyped flash in the pan, like quadraphonic sound. When the latter position became increasingly tenuous, we saw a schism erupt between writers who viewed the Internet as a new utopia and those who saw it as a threat to the good old ways.

The New Yorker's current issue illuminates yet another fundamental division in media coverage of the Internet: Some journalists actually use the technology they write about; others just talk about it.

Ken Auletta, who pens the New Yorker's "Annals of Communications" columns, is most at home profiling the barons of corporate media. As his beat has stretched to encompass media technology and the Net, he has revealed a penchant for gee-whiz reporting, whether chronicling the launch of Slate or singing the praises of Microsoft technology guru Nathan Myhrvold. But his latest opus -- "The Last Sure Thing," a profile of PointCast, last year's push-technology darling -- isn't just yesterday's news; even as it tries to adopt a more skeptical stance, it sets a new benchmark for superficiality.

PointCast, you will remember, burst on the scene in 1996 as the leading proponent of "push technology." PointCast's chief product was a program you could load on your PC that would download information while you were busy doing something else and then display it for you, typically as a screensaver. Cool, right? By spring of 1997 a tidal wave of "push" hype was cresting with Wired magazine's infamous cover story on the subject -- which probably did more to damage that publication's credibility than any other story it has published. PointCast was claiming millions of users -- which told you that millions of people had at one time or another downloaded the company's free software, not how many were actually using it.

But even while "push" was being peddled, observant writers were pointing out what the rest of the world gradually discovered for itself: PointCast was a bad idea, poorly executed. It tried to stuff the new Internet medium into old broadcast channels. It didn't work well at home because modems were too slow; it didn't work well in offices because it clogged local networks; it didn't work well anywhere because it was buggy and would seize control of your computer from you while you were trying to accomplish something -- mostly, it seemed, in order to bombard you with fresh ads. If you wanted "push," people realized, e-mail worked a lot better. By late 1997, you were most likely to see PointCast strobing through its silly animations on the monitors of executives who had no other use for their PCs; the rest of us had uninstalled it in disgust.

These are the reasons PointCast, briefly the darling of the technology press, wound up in the doghouse. Auletta tells a different story: His eight-page article, which contains little evidence that the writer has ever himself actually used PointCast, offers one muddled paragraph discussing the problems with PointCast's product before sagely pronouncing, "PointCast's weakness, at bottom, was management." That's sort of like saying that the problem with the Challenger launch was poor morale.

Instead of looking at why people lost their enthusiasm for PointCast as soon as they got their hands on the product, Auletta prefers to engage in character analysis of PointCast founder and original CEO Chris Hassett, or careful descriptions of the attire of the company's new chairman, Dave Dorman (polished tasseled loafers). Much of "The Last Sure Thing" is devoted to a study of why Rupert Murdoch's proposed $400 million buyout of PointCast in late 1996 fell through. Auletta quotes Martin Nisenholtz, president of the New York Times' Electronic Media Company: "It may go down as one of the biggest mistakes in Internet history." But whose mistake? I suppose from PointCast executives' perspective, failing to roll Murdoch for $400 million can be described as a blunder. But Murdoch had already made a series of disastrous Net investments, and if anything his failure to consummate the PointCast deal showed a new savvy.

The more closely you look at it, the more "The Last Sure Thing" looks like a model of bad magazine coverage of the Internet. Near its beginning, the article offers a hilarious roundup of Silicon Valley clichis. In the Valley, "People move from job to job like nomads." They "talk about software more than about Monica." They love extreme sports. They check their stock-option prices. And -- the killer -- "Workers tend to wear Gap rather than Armani." Outside of Silicon Valley, I guess, Armani has the labor market sewn up.

Auletta's piece also has its share of plain ignorant goofs, like a reference to companies as "Silicon Valley meteors -- General Magic, GO, Catapult, Wolff New Media, Hayes modems -- that once streaked across the sky." Wolff New Media, "Burn Rate" author Michael Wolff's mediocre publishing house cum Web site, operated out of Manhattan, not Mountain View. Hayes was based in Atlanta last time I looked -- and to call this pioneer of modem technology over two decades a "meteor" reveals a stunning ignorance of recent technological history.

In the end, "The Last Sure Thing's" big insight into Net business is something Auletta calls "the three dogs barking rule": "Let one dog bark, and soon another joins in, and then another." The article's last paragraph suggests that this rule of copycat enthusiasm may well be responsible not only for PointCast's rise and fall but also for the market successes of such wildly disparate companies as Net hardware manufacturer Cisco, |ber-portal Yahoo and online auctioneer eBay. The whole Net's a scam! Or maybe not -- since earlier in the same piece Auletta wrote that PointCast's execs "say that their product will again be as attractive as it was, and perhaps they are right."

Why does the New Yorker, a publication with a proud tradition and still considerable influence, keep publishing Auletta's tripe? The magazine does have some writers with a better understanding of Silicon Valley and the ways of the Net, including John Heilemann and John Seabrook. We may not expect the New Yorker to break major technology stories, but at least its legendary fact checkers could save Auletta some embarrassment.

Maybe there's simply too great a gulf between the Manhattan elite and the technology industry's trenches. Just look at the magazine's cover art for the issue that contained Auletta's story: The Edward Sorel cartoon shows a well-dressed business couple sharing breakfast on a rooftop balcony overlooking Central Park; instead of newspapers, they're both poring over laptop computers.

In New York, I guess this vision still can elicit an ironic chuckle. In Silicon Valley it would just be a scene from everyday life.

Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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