Citizen Gates

The media played the Microsoft trial as a judgment on the CEO's personality -- and there was no way he could win.

By Sean Elder
Published April 5, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

The war drums started beating last week, after it was announced that talks between Microsoft and the Department of Justice had broken down. Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson would render his verdict Monday, it was speculated, and it wasn't going to be pretty. The press could hardly wait.

The Microsoft decision is, of course, a bona fide big deal; stocks trembled and fell in anticipation of Jackson's decision and legitimate historical questions about the relevance of anti-trust legislation in the age of the Internet were on the lips of news readers who thought Sherman was Peabody's assistant.

But for those who anticipated the decision as a judgment of Microsoft chairman and co-founder Bill Gates, the conclusion was foregone. Big stories, be they elections or antitrust suits, are about personalities. And over the past five years, Gates has morphed from supergeek -- the ultimate vengeful nerd, who transformed himself from 97-pound weakling to world's richest man -- into terrible titan.

You can blame part of this phenomenon on the Citizen Kane syndrome; people love the story of the once mighty who have fallen and can't get up. Some of it is due to the public's lack of understanding of the issues involved, not to mention the technology. (Though the notion, advanced by both Microsoft and its rivals, that the computer business moves at light speed compared to the legal system was echoed throughout the press coverage of the verdict.)

And some of it is the fault of Gates himself. Even as he has tried to portray himself as more accessible -- a regular multibillionaire Joe -- he has come across more and more as a distant Oz-like figure, who mistakes his ego for the body politic and thinks what is good for him is good for the people. As much as people love that movie, they hate the man behind the curtain.

Moments after the verdict was released at 5 p.m. EDT on Monday, CNN's "Moneyline" crew fell upon it like a pride of hungry lions. It was left to reporter Steve Young to rip his way through Jackson's 43-page decision, while "Moneyline" host Stuart Varney checked back in with him every five minutes to see how much of it he had digested. Young looked like a man in the midst of a hot-dog-eating contest: No matter how much he wolfed, the food all tasted the same.

For the decision, as has been noted, was scathing in its language. Jackson's description of Microsoft's "oppressive thumb on the scale of competitive fortune" was the favorite of newspapers the following day. The unflappable Varney seemed most discomfited by a phone call from former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale, who said the best thing the DOJ could do would be to break up Microsoft. Breaking up corporations, Varney's tone conveyed, was so ... 20th century.

By evening, most of the news networks had sampled enough of Jackson's decision to cobble together some quick-hit specials putting the lawsuit in perspective. MSNBC handled its peculiar relationship to the plaintiff in a forthright manner, with news anchor Brian Williams encouraging viewers to log on to the MSNBC Web site to read Jackson's decision in its entirety.

In a 10 p.m. special entitled "Target: Microsoft," Williams presented back-to-back clips from Tom Brokaw interviews with Gates, the first in 1995 (taken from an NBC profile entitled "Tycoon") and the second completed just hours before, shortly after the Microsoft press conference in Redmond, Wash.

If nothing else, Gates has stayed on message in the past five years. In 1995, he was declaring the consumer was in charge, and Microsoft but his humble servant, and that sentiment was echoed by him (and the company's flacks) throughout the following news cycle. What had changed was his style. While the 1990s had found Gates in a fashion that could best be described as "full geek" (Chinos hiked to midbelly, blue Oxford shirt unironed, hair that looked literally cow-licked), he responded to Monday's verdict in a tailored blue suit and tie.

To his credit, Brokaw's line of questioning was consistent. Brushing past Gates' '95 gee-whiz act he cited critics saying, "You want to eat up your competitors."

Gates paused before laughing, rather ambiguously. "It doesn't ring any bells for me," he said.

Fast-forward to Monday. Despite his sartorial overhaul, Gates doesn't seem to have brushed up much on his people skills. He smiled unconvincingly throughout and stuck to his guns. "In no way can I say I would do anything differently," he said of his behavior throughout the suit.

More damning was a condensed version of the chairman's now infamous deposition, aired later that evening on ABC's "Nightline." It was only about 30 seconds, but it amounted to a montage of denial: "I don't remember ... I can't recall ... I don't recognize that." I hadn't seen anything like it since Contragate.

Of course, Microsoft's monopolistic practices don't pose a threat to national security, and by Monday some of the more conservative papers were taking a more sympathetic stance toward the company. While the Wall Street Journal's main story covered it as a chess match, with the next move being Jackson's, its editorial page treated the verdict as (surprise) an affront to free enterprise.

"Who's Next?" asked the editorial, before going on to limn the battle in "Moby Dick" terms. "The company says it will appeal," wrote the editors, "and the Nasdaq's plummet yesterday suggests the market sees a disconnect between the realities of the high-tech business today and the prospect of Microsoft spending years lurching through the courts the way IBM did in the 1970s, dragging with it Justice, a judge, boats of lawyers and all the harpoons envy can sink into its carcass."

The thought that all that whale blubber might feed more than attorneys (especially the state attorneys general the editorial labels "sea gulls") -- that the breakup of Microsoft might benefit innovation rather than hamper it, as Barksdale maintains -- is not an idea the Journal can stomach. It buys the oft repeated Microsoft line -- "The consumer is the winner" -- and losers (like Netscape) are just that. Wave bye-bye to them in the rearview mirror.

USA Today led with Gates' defiance of the judgment, and in describing the DOJ's action as "a deliberate assault" on competition, the chairman seemed to be talking about Waco rather than market domination. (The Gannet paper is not exactly cutting edge in its coverage of the Internet, though; the front page of its Web site Tuesday featured a link to "Strange sites: the wacky side of the Information Superhighway." When was the last time you heard someone use that expression?)

The Los Angeles Times analysis, by Michael Hiltzik and Joseph Menn, probably did the best job of linking Gates to his company without confusing the two.

"Gates' views also are shaped by a broader conviction that the government should have virtually no role in the Darwinian process by which high-tech companies develop their products and battle with rivals in the marketplace," the reporters wrote. "He deeply believes his company benefits the world in general and everyone who uses its products in particular."

The article also quoted Steven D. Houck, a former New York assistant attorney general involved in the litigation, who said of Gates: "He's not used to losing, and he lives in a world of his own up there in Redmond."

Reality's knock must sound like the guns of Navarone right about now, though by all accounts the troops in Redmond have circled the wagons and joined their leader in defiance. Anything could happen over the lengthy appeals process, as all those who covered the trial were quick to add.

The description of Camp Microsoft that stayed with me came from MSNBC's Brock Meeks, who appeared on Williams' special Monday. "Everyone out there believes they are going to prevail," he said of Redmond gang. "They're in a very lofty atmosphere."

That image, redolent of misty hills and kayaks, reminded me of the monks of "Magister Ludi," the Hermann Hesse novel in which a select group of intelligentsia play a glass-bead game that substitutes for life. They didn't have the DOJ on their ass, though. And they weren't trying to sell their beads to the rest of the world.

Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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