From the pages of Z Magazine


Media Beat

Norman Soloman


"Corporate Rebels"

By now, we’ve run across similar stories many times: A scrappy innovator took on the business establishment and made a fortune. An engineer battled myopic bosses to develop a great new product. A brilliant computer nerd overcame entrenched foes and now heads the firm.

Today’s news reports seem to be more focused on mutiny than conformity in corporate suites. At a time when many companies are urging employees to challenge old concepts, the media coverage often makes the latest changes sound almost radical.

Nowhere is this media tone more fervent than at Wired magazine. Founded in 1993, the colorful monthly calls itself the journal of "the Digital Revolution"—and honors its readers as "digital revolutionaries."

Wired went over the 300,000 circulation mark a year ago. The ornate magazine is quite influential with an affluent readership—including many journalists—eager to keep tabs on cutting-edge computer trends.

When Wired published a special 12-page report last month, titled "Corporate Rebels," it cranked up the rhetoric of revolt.

"Inflexible bureaucracy, top-down management, tightly regulated industries, monopoly—these are the tired remnants of the old corporate world order," Wired proclaimed in big type.

But the magazine saw hope: "Those who break the shackles of business as usual—corporate rebels—set the pace for the next millennium. They are iconoclasts who question the status quo, cut through red tape, and challenge their bosses to greatness.... The smarter companies tap the uprising within, creating ways to turn the steam of the rebel into the fuel that drives the business."

That’s the kind of muddled verbiage that provides a hospitable environment for sleek full-page ads from outfits like Intel, Sony, Lucent Technologies, Microsoft, Smith Barney, Panasonic, and U.S. Robotics.

Wired mingles technical updates and human-interest features with idolatry of huge corporations now gaining unprecedented control over systems of mass communication. Evidently, Wired’s editors are complacent about the dire implications for democracy.

In recent years, Time and Newsweek have imitated a bit of Wired’s style. But while the newsweeklies can print only a few cyber-fixated pages, Wired pumps out more than 200 in a single issue.

And the hero worship is remarkable. For instance, IBM research fellow Ted Selker—Wired’s leading Corporate Rebel—earned the headline "Rebel Without a Pause." Wired explained that Selker had a cause: He "battled engineering and manufacturing skeptics to create the trackpoint, the knobby red pointing device that helped boost sales of IBM’s ThinkPad portable PC."

Wow! That’s a rebel for you.

Right behind him were other Wired heroes: the wealthy founder of a discount global phone service; the designer of "a radical company-wide internal network" for U.S. West Communications; a pioneer of on-line stock brokering.

Wired’s pretenses are grimly laughable. The magazine glorifies a procession of vaunted rebels for struggling to persuade a corporate hierarchy to let them generate profits. In a vague echo of 1960s counterculture and New Age platitudes, these crusades are likened to the sacred quest for human freedom.

The limits aren’t hard to discern. When the magazine’s corporate parent, Wired Ventures, tried to attract investment capital last year, it boasted that "none of the company’s employees is represented by a labor union." Today, with more than 300 people on the Wired Ventures payroll, that’s still the case.

While Wired praises pseudo-rebels for "challenging conventional wisdom," the proof of their virtue is a higher rate of return. Rebellion is laudable if it results in making more money for the company.

Of course, according to some mainstream news outlets, Wired itself qualifies as a corporate rebel. The New York Times has dubbed Wired "the icon of the Internet generation." The newspaper declared: "The genius of Wired is that it makes the Digital Revolution a self-fulfilling prophesy, both illuminating this new sub-culture and promoting it."

Despite all the hype, skilled technicians and shrewd investors don’t merit acclaim as profound visionaries.

"Happy is the country which requires no heroes," said the German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Such a nation may not exist today. But at least we might hope for a country where the news media can tell the difference between a heroic rebel and a clever entrepreneur.


Virtual Mendacity

This spring, thousands of youngsters have gotten involved in "the ultimate multimedia exploration of the American experience."

Virtual history is here—wrapped in a red-white-and-blue package that bears the venerable imprint of American Heritage magazine and promises "the only software your kids will ever need to study American history!"

A single CD-ROM disk now provides hours of music, video clips, audio narration and "3D virtual reality walkthroughs." It all comes under a lofty title: "The History of the United States for Young People."

These days, adults are often pleased to see children sitting at computers and learning with a few keystrokes. The scene is so modern ... so 21st century. The kids are learning, all right. But what?

If they’re studying, say, the Vietnam War, the computer tells about the escalation of U.S. "air strikes" and then explains: "By the end of the 1960s, bombing raids had become an almost daily occurrence." But the CD-ROM wizardry never gets around to the human suffering caused by those "air strikes" and "bombing raids."

The narrative slant presents Washington’s war makers as well-intentioned champions of democratic values. Ironically, kids who use the glitzy history disk to learn about the war in Vietnam are encountering the same distortions that many of their parents and grandparents rejected three decades ago.

Such virtual history may not be any worse than the usual textbook kind. But it can be quite a bit more insidious.

A grisly visual image—a row of human skulls—appears on the screen when "the South Vietnamese were unable to stop the North Vietnamese advance. In April 1975, communist forces captured Saigon." But the picture of skulls suddenly disappears when other words arrive: "In 1969, President Nixon secretly ordered the bombing of communist bases in Cambodia."

Evidently, in cyberhistory, communist bombs cause ghastly horrors while the effects of American bombs don’t merit a blip on the screen. How’s that for virtual propaganda?

If this is "the only software your kids will ever need to study American history," we’re in big trouble. If "The History of the United States for Young People" is any indication, the current multimedia innovations are opening new vistas for deceiving the next generation.

The more that computers and software become glorified as megabyte beacons of progress for everyday life, the less we hear about GIGO—one of the basic aphorisms that emerged early in the computer age. "Garbage In, Garbage Out."

<$THAlign=J>Vows to put computers in every classroom don’t deal with a key question: Are we fixating on the latest gizmos while failing to scrutinize content? The widespread obsessions with technical glitz could amount to perpetual distractions that mesmerize children and adults alike.

The American Heritage history disk—which adapts a big-selling school book for eighth graders—"makes the textbook really come to life," an official who helped produce the CD-ROM told me. But the ultimate target is grown-ups: "It’s really for parents to buy for kids."

No one owns America’s heritage, of course. But, since 1986, a few rich guys named Forbes have owned American Heritage. Steve Forbes—the editor in chief of Forbes magazine—is the CEO of the privately held parent company, Forbes Inc.

Forbes ran for president last year and declared: "I want to reduce the (tax) rate further and further and further. We won’t get it to zero emissions, you might say, but that wouldn’t be a bad goal." That says a lot about what he thinks of government. Joining with Forbes Inc. to produce "The History of the United States for Young People" is Simon & Schuster, a subsidiary of the media giant Viacom. Clearly, the manufacturing of multimedia history for young people is a big business.

"Only through history does a nation become completely conscious of itself," wrote the 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. "Accordingly, history is to be regarded as the national conscience of the human race."

But what happens when we turn over the national conscience to the high-tech market?


Truth Or Consequences For News Media

We like to think that journalists will pay a heavy price if they tell lies or promote deception. But it ain’t necessarily so. Consider the case of former Newsweek writer Joe Klein.

Throughout the first half of 1996, Klein denied that he was "Anonymous"—the author of the political novel Primary Colors. Klein’s denials were frequent and vehement. But last summer, the world learned that he’d been lying the whole time.

As this summer begins, Klein is riding high as Washington correspondent for the prestigious New Yorker magazine.

Klein built his career largely by accusing inner-city blacks of "dependency" and "pathology." He often stereotyped them as dishonest. In retrospect—considering his awesome display of dishonesty—the ironies abound.

A few days ago, I asked Klein whether those ironies had caused him to reassess the superior tone of his numerous articles that looked down on the moral standards of poor African Americans. He replied: "Are you out of your mind?"

Klein wasn’t the only Newsweek journalist implicated in the Anonymous subterfuge. The editor of the magazine, Maynard Parker, knew that Klein was the author of Primary Colors all along—and stayed silent. In fact, Parker allowed his magazine to print misleading speculation about the author’s identity.

When his complicity came to light, Parker was unrepentant. He urged critics to "get a life."

Today, Maynard Parker is still the editor of Newsweek. And though Joe Klein took a great deal of flak from colleagues, he told me that his exit from the magazine last November was purely voluntary: "I quit." Without any delay, Klein was comfortably ensconced at the New Yorker, covering politics.

From the outset of his Anonymous gambit (calculated to hike book sales), Klein might have guessed that he wasn’t risking much. For comfort, he may have thought of columnist George Will.

Will is "perhaps the most powerful journalist in America," according to the Wall Street Journal. But back in October 1980, Will skated over some very thin ice when he went on ABC’s "Nightline" to praise Ronald Reagan’s "thoroughbred performance" in a crucial debate with incumbent President Jimmy Carter.

There was something that Will didn’t mention. He had helped coach Reagan for that debate—and had read Carter’s briefing materials stolen from the White House. Will’s devious role remained a secret for years. When it finally surfaced, other journalists politely chided him and dropped the subject. Instead of slumping, Will’s career gained star quality. "What brought him to outer space was exactly the thing many thought would bring him down: coaching Reagan," observed Jeff Greenfield of "ABC News."

"To the skill and style he’d always had, it added the insider magic."

Perhaps few journalists have outdone Klein and Will for brazen duplicity. But many of America’s eminent news reporters make a habit of presenting deceptive claims from government sources as credible.

Predictably, a lot of Washington-based journalists with long experience in misleading the public have denounced the San Jose Mercury News series that linked CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contras with the spread of crack cocaine in the United States during the early 1980s.

In recent weeks—ever since the top editor at the Mercury News, Jerry Ceppos, wrote a column backing away from some aspects of the series—we’ve heard plenty of media pieties about how the series failed to include more than one interpretation of facts. Yet news pages and broadcasts often contain just one limited interpretation—drawn from official sources.

Late last month, an article by veteran journalist Daniel Schorr in the Christian Science Monitor put the uproar in perspective. Usually no maverick, Schorr stepped out of the herd this time, writing that "big newspapers lost sight of the fact that Ceppos had said the series was right on many important points."

Shorr went against the prevalent trashing of a courageous, truth-seeking journalist: "Odd man out in this controversy is investigative reporter Gary Webb, the hard-working author of the series. He was left to twist in the wind while the press glorified his editor for having some second thoughts about the explosive aticles."

Meanwhile, Joe Klein isn’t twisting in any wind. Neither is George Will. Neither are the journalists who never tell lies—but pass them along from official sources and avoid the risks of telling hard truths


Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His book Wizards of Media Oz (co-authored with Jeff Cohen) will be published in July by Common Courage Press.