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Matt Welch Posted January 22, 2001
Michael Kinsley: The Apologist
By Matt Welch, OJR Staff Writer and Columnist

Print version


Matt Welch:
08/01       Media Criticism Gone Horribly Wrong
07/01       The Webbys' Ode to San Francisco
06/01       Suck.com: From Oasis to Mirage
05/01       The Web's Most Curious Man
03/01       Off-Campus Speech v. School Safety
On Jan. 11, Slate editor Michael Kinsley posted a column, which was picked up by the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, ridiculing a new movie that apparently demonizes Bill Gates.

"AntiTrust is an eerily accurate portrayal of life at Microsoft Corp. (where I've worked for five years) - right down to the hidden cameras that track employees' every movement and the chairman's eccentric habit of having anyone who gets in his way brutally beaten to death," Kinsley wrote.

With heavy-handed sarcasm ("Thank goodness there is one segment of American society that can't be bought and will not be silenced. That is Hollywood"), the former New Republic editor and Crossfire co-host gives facetious testimony to the film's accuracy ("in such matters as the chairman's ... tendency to hire beautiful artists to sleep with his star programmers"), makes a modest point about intellectual property rights versus open-source coding, and wraps up by suggesting that it's just one more example of Microsoft being victimized by misguided persecutors:

"[The filmmakers] pretend to be using the techniques of fictionalization to be telling some sort of fundamental truth about the world. That truth has something vaguely to do with the company I work for being a force for evil. At one point, the Gates character gives a nice little speechlet asking, What have we done that's so terrible? In an industry that has transformed the world, and where innovation proceeds at a ferocious pace, what exactly is the problem? This rings a little hollow when you know he's a coldhearted killer. When you don't, it seems like all too good a question."

Kinsley has made it safe for all journalists less talented and trustworthy than he to sign up for e-commerce operations and other non-media companies without compunction.

Such up-front apologia for one of the richest men in the world and his controversial monopoly may surprise those who have conferred upon Kinsley one of the best reputations in modern media. But over the last 66 months, this "revered lion of highbrow journalism" has expended a remarkable amount of energy using his skittish humor and considerable contrarian intellect to humanize Bill Gates and attack Microsoft's critics, all the while swatting down anyone with the nerve to question the propriety of his own ethical balancing act.

By convincing one of the world's most feared capitalists to bankroll a serious publication, Kinsley has made it safe for all journalists less talented and trustworthy than he to sign up for e-commerce operations and other non-media companies without compunction. And he has backed this example with a series of columns and statements deriding the very notions of conflict-of-interest and (as it were) working for The Man.

KILLER BILL AND HIS FABULOUS PRODUCTS

The anti-Antitrust column was hardly the first time Kinsley has joked about his bosses' murderous ways. Turns out it's one of his favorite gags:

  • When Slate gave up charging $19.95 subscriptions two years ago, Gates' "initial reaction was not encouraging," Kinsley wrote. "He turned to his guard dogs and said, 'Neukom! Herbold! Kill!'"
  • When Time magazine apparently mimicked some Slate feature in the fall of 1998, Kinsley said he consulted Microsoft President Steve Ballmer, who counseled: "'Have them killed.' But he quickly added, 'Unless, of course, that would in any way violate the antitrust laws.'"
  • When Slate took over the domain "Slate.com" in early 1997, Kinsley wrote that you could now reach Gates at "havethemkilled@slate.com."
  • A month before that, when Slate showed its new front page to the chairman, Kinsley wrote, he "studied it for a few seconds and said impatiently, 'How do I find the place where I have people killed every week?' We answered, It's usually buried somewhere in a column called 'Readme.' 'Buried? But it's my favorite part. Whose idea was burying it?' We mentioned the name of a dispensable subassistant to the deputy assistant editor in our Bogotá bureau. 'Have him killed,' he said."

There are plenty of other variations on the Bill-the-Tyrant joke (including a bit about how Microsoft "plans to incorporate Puerto Rico into the next generation of its Internet browser"), but all have the same effect: to lampoon Gates & Co.'s nasty reputation, and imply that those who have created it are grossly overstating their case. Or, as Kinsley wrote in Time magazine last April, "It surely counts for something that the typical 'Softy truly doesn't recognize himself or his work in the description of Microsoft promulgated by the company's critics."

Kinsley mines a similar vein of humor when discussing Slate's editorial independence and his own awkward role within the Microsoft empire. Then, Gates becomes a meddlesome and overbearing publisher, while the cowed Slatesters dutifully criticize Netscape, lavish over-the-top praise on Microsoft products, and apologize for any writing critical of The Boss.

"Readers who have been enjoying Michael Lewis' 'Dispatches' from the courtroom where government lawyers are attempting the most brazen legal challenge to human progress since the Scopes Trial should be aware of the following: Mr. Lewis' views do not necessarily reflect those of Slate magazine, its editors, or its advertisers. Especially its editors,'" Kinsley wrote Oct. 24, 1998, in the midst of Lewis' terrific stint as Slate's Microsoft-trial correspondent. "In fact, we were sitting around the other day trying to recall whose stupid idea it was to hire Michael Lewis, a known Netscape user -- sometimes four, five, six, or more times a day; the man clearly belongs in Netscape Anonymous -- to cover an event as complex and vital to civilization's future as the Microsoft trial."

[B]ut all have the same effect: to lampoon Gates & Co.'s nasty reputation, and imply that those who have created it are grossly overstating their case.

Microsoft, Kinsley emphasized, is a "saintlike, public-spirited, and compassionate company." In another column, he explained that Slate "doesn't want to be dependent on the charity of any rich person, even one as saintly and magnificent as our employer." And elsewhere: "Naturally we want our employer to thrive. (And doesn't everybody, really, wish the best for Microsoft?)" Even in a sober analysis on the disparities between stock-market and economic growth, Kinsley couldn't resist mentioning that, "Even shares in a company as wonderful as, say, Microsoft are treasured only for their trade-in value."

One Slate search-engine feature in development, he further joked, would allow for Slate pieces to be sorted "by Bill Gates' opinion of the articles' merits"; another produced "only favorable references" on searches for "Bill Gates." Slate's software development team -- "through a simple iterative program" -- even cast 1.8 million votes for Bill Gates as Person of the Millennium. "Could there be any other real answer?" Kinsley asked. Apparently not.

As for Microsoft's products, "Although we say so as a sister division of the same company, Word is an amazing and underappreciated piece of software." To mark the 1997 release of Internet Explorer 4.0, Slate promised to "bring the same degree of objectivity and hype resistance to this event that we legendarily brought to our coverage of the birth of Jesus some 2,000 years ago -- an occasion the release of IE4, as it happens, closely resembles." When it came time to name Slate's coverage of the presidential election, well, nothing would do except "Office 2000" ("catchy, don'cha think?").

As for Netscape, well, "Some of our best friends use Netscape."

What purpose does this faux-genuflection serve? In the case of the various MicroProducts (and their Slate-specific variations) the sarcasm usually comes with links and encouragement to download the latest version, so the joking helps soften the hard-sell. (Kinsley is fond of headlines like "Shameless puffery from the editor," and "An orgy of shameless self-promotion.")

In the case of the various MicroProducts (and their Slate-specific variations) the sarcasm usually comes with links and encouragement to download the latest version, so the joking helps soften the hard-sell.

It's the kind of false self-deprecation more common among ex-journalists who now work in public relations, than people described as "arguably the most highly regarded magazine editor in the country." Certainly a far cry from, say, David Letterman's mean jabs at his various corporate bosses. But then, Letterman never exactly knocked on Jack Welch's door and asked for money to start a brand new show.

By making a mockery of his own status within Microsoft, Kinsley is also, I think, trying to reassure us that his integrity and judgment remain solid, if not more trustworthy than that of journalists who lack the courage and self-awareness to poke fun at their own "conflicts."

CONFLICT, SCHMONFLICT

In his inaugural column for Slate in June 1996, Kinsley pre-emptively struck out at skeptics who might question the journalistic merits of his collaboration with Bill Gates.

"Slate is owned by Microsoft Corp., and that bothers some people," he wrote. "Can a giant software company put out a magazine that is free to think for itself? ... The concern strikes me as misplaced. In a day of media conglomerates with myriad daily conflicts of interest -- Time Warner, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., Disney-ABC -- how can it be a bad thing for a new company to begin competing in the media business? A journalist who worries about Microsoft putting out a magazine is a journalist with a steady job."

On Christmas day 1997, as Department of Justice activity was coming to a boil, Kinsley laid down his definitive answer to the conflict question, provocatively declaring, "There will be no major investigations of Microsoft in Slate."

In it, Kinsley acknowledges the possible corrupting influences on Slate journalists (from owning Microsoft stock, to simply soaking up the Redmond atmosphere), while pointing out that the boss gives him a freer hand than most of his Old Media colleagues enjoy. In the end, he rejects the "temptation to prove one's independence with ostentatious criticism" and "stagy self-mutiliation" (which is what "the journalism reviews" would have him do), and instead defends MicroSlate for contributing to the "diversity of voices" necessary to ensure "skeptical scrutiny" of powerful institutions.

Throat thus cleared, Kinsley then embarked on a mini-crusade against the ethics police.

"'Conflict of interest' is an overused and underanalyzed concept," he wrote in an April 1998 piece defending his journalist "pal" Stuart Taylor, whose job offer from Kenneth Starr dropped him "into the maw of a journalistic ethics controversy."

"This is a simultaneously terrifying, infuriating, and boring place to be. (While there, perhaps, he may even bond with Sidney Blumenthal, a journalist who is suffering a similar -- and, in my view, similarly unjust -- torment for taking a job in the Clinton White House.)"

From his tone, you'd think that Kinsley himself had been suffering routinely at the hands of ivory tower hair-splitters and their journalism-review co-conspirators. The opposite, actually, is true. Columbia Journalism Review named him one the country's 10 best editors last year, and the year before wrote a whole Salon-Slate profile without once uttering the word "conflict."

In fact, beyond the occasional tweak by Salon and its catty editor David Talbot (who memorably called Kinsley "Bill Gates' house pet"), Slate's practical ethics have gone virtually unexamined except for a couple of pieces in ZDnet. If anything, Kinsley has been praised seemingly every time Slate has posted anything critical of Microsoft -- even if many of the applauded articles were accompanied by more tortured letters from the editor (such as Kinsley's weird notes about a Ralph Nader column, a James Cramer review of a book about Microsoft, and a Karenna Gore discussion of Word 97 features.

[B]eyond the occasional tweak by Salon and its catty editor David Talbot (who memorably called Kinsley "Bill Gates' house pet"), Slate's practical ethics have gone virtually unexamined...

When Salon and a UK tech publication called The Register gently needled Slate after Lewis dropped out of covering the Microsoft trial (especially in the wake of Kinsley's aforementioned column about it), Kinsley shot back with not one but two letters to Salon, and a new Slate column calling the jabs "nonsense."

"Does such an occurrence justify paranoid speculation about corrupt motives and conflicts of interest? Answer: No, not at all," he snipped. "We wrote a jokey little item in this space two weeks ago about having Lewis killed and whatnot, and some people have taken it seriously. We hope that Slate hasn't attracted the kind of readership that needs the word 'PARODY' or 'SATIRE' or 'HUMOR' stamped on every bit of good-hearted raillery."

By the time AOL announced it was buying Time-Warner, Kinsley was ready to assume the mantle of national spokesman for the anti-anti-merger argument, and its central contentions (familiar to those who have followed Steve Brill's evolution on the subject) that executives are too smart to mess with content, and journalists are just as likely to over-compensate for their "perceived" conflicts.

"I don't think there's a chance in the world that there won't be 15 different studies of the effect of the Time Warner-AOL merger on Time's media properties," he told PBS' Jim Lehrer. "AOL would be out of their minds to try and bias Time magazine, because -- not because of any high-minded reason, but simply because it would lose its value as a brand."

Kinsley's crowning effort to debunk the "problem" of corporate journalism was a goofy essay for Time magazine itself in the issue after the merger, reducing the concept of disclosure to absurdity.

"Readers have the right to know that TIME magazine will be part of AOL Time Warner. The author of this essay, by contrast, has a day job as editor of Slate, an online magazine published by Microsoft. Microsoft owns an online service, msn, that competes with AOL. Microsoft and AOL Time Warner will have competing investments in the cable industry...." and on, and on.

DEFENDING THE BOSS

Having dispensed with conflict-of-interest, Kinsley now feels free to weigh in unhindered on the Microsoft case -- specifically, about how the company's critics are wrong. Besides the aformentioned Time magazine column, the Slate editor took down Robert Bork for, ironically, allowing his name and long-held views to be corrupted by taking money from Netscape.

"It's not utterly impossible to reconcile Bork's current position (call it Browser Bork) with what he wrote in 1978 (call it Book Bork), but it's almost utterly impossible," he wrote. "What is utterly impossible is to imagine that Bork himself would ever have threaded through this maze of rationalization if he weren't being paid by Netscape. ... Obviously Netscape is trading on his reputation."

Last April 17, Kinsley outdid himself by reacting to a New York Times article on Microsoft hiring lobbyists with a savage deconstruction, starting with author Joel Brinkley's "clearly tendentious" usage of the phrase "curry favor" to describe why the political advisers were brought on.

Having dispensed with conflict-of-interest, Kinsley now feels free to weigh in unhindered on the Microsoft case...

"Brinkley is remarkably biased against Microsoft and gets away with it to a remarkable degree," Kinsley argued, adding: "My special interest in this particular example of newspaper bias is obvious, and so is my own potential bias. But it's still an interesting example. As for bias: When the subject is Microsoft, Slate does a somewhat better job of suppressing its biases than the New York Times. In my biased opinion."

Slate and Kinsley may indeed be less biased than the New York Times, or any other publication for that matter, but they certainly are more obsessed -- a "Microsoft" search on Slate yielded 1,077 entries Jan. 22. As Mark Glaser once observed, "positive or negative, that's a lot of publicity." Considering that Microsoft is engaged in some of the most expensive public-relations and political-lobbying campaigns in the country, there is no doubt that the software company's tenuous corporate image has been greatly enhanced by demonstrating it can nurture the "bespectacled prince of magazine journalism," who conveniently has been telling the rest of the world for four years that Gates and his monopoly ain't so bad after all.

Meanwhile, the awkward jokes rain down -- fake Bill Gates letters, fake dialogues with Janet Reno, a long gag about the Justice Department "settlement" with Slate, another about a free gift umbrella "bundled" with a Slate subscription, and a "declaration" about how Slate's goal is to "own political and cultural commentary in this country, the industrialized nations, and ultimately in the developing regions as well," by using "any means necessary" including "theft, bribery, murder, and, if necessary, putting out a high-quality product."

Tee-hee!

Kinsley wants it all -- praise for his critical take on Microsoft, gratitude for trying to provide (I'm not making this up) a "great gift from technology to democracy," laughs at his jokes, and respect for putting Slate in position to "make it" by being a cost-conscious "tortoise" (as opposed to a recipient of invaluable Microsoft promotion, technology and support).

"Everyone likes to pick on Microsoft, and Slate is Microsoft represented in the world of arts and letters, so everyone picks on us," he onced whined to the OJR. "But you can't get any sympathy claiming unfairness to Microsoft. ... We just grin and bear it."

You could almost feel sorry for the guy. At least he has a grateful, caring boss.

"When I showed up at their doorstep," he told Foliomag.com, "they took me in."
 
Should Kinsley be taken to task for his defense of Microsoft? More importantly, is conflict of interest an 'overused and underanalyzed concept'? Tell us in the OJR Forums.
 



Matt Welch Matt Welch is an OJR Staff Writer and Columnist. His work is archived at mattwelch.com.


[ Frontpage ] [ Opinion ] [ Matt Welch ] [ Back to Top ]
© Copyright 2001 Online Journalism Review
n nurture the "bespectacled prince of magazine journalism," who conveniently has been telling the rest of the world for four years that Gates and his monopoly ain't so bad after all.

Meanwhile, the awkward jokes rain down -- fake Bill Gates letters, fake dialogues with Janet Reno, a long gag about the Justice Department "settlement" with Slate, another about a free gift umbrella "bundled" with a Slate subscription, and a "declaration" about how Slate's goal is to "own political and cultural commentary in this country, the industrialized nations, and ultimately in the developing regions as well," by using "any means necessary" including "theft, bribery, murder, and, if necessary, putting out a high-quality product."

Tee-hee!

Kinsley wants it all -- praise for his critical take on Microsoft, gratitude for trying to provide (I'm not making this up) a "great gift from technology to democracy," laughs at his jokes, and respect for putting Slate in position to "make it" by being a cost-conscious "tortoise" (as opposed to a recipient of invaluable Microsoft promotion, technology and support).

"Everyone likes to pick on Microsoft, and Slate is Microsoft represented in the world of arts and letters, so everyone picks on us," he onced whined to the OJR. "But you can't get any sympathy claiming unfairness to Microsoft. ... We just grin and bear it."

You could almost feel sorry for the guy. At least he has a grateful, caring boss.

"When I showed up at their doorstep," he told Foliomag.com, "they took me in."
 
Should Kinsley be taken to task for his defense of Microsoft? More importantly, is conflict of interest an 'overused and underanalyzed concept'? Tell us in the OJR Forums.
 



Matt Welch Matt Welch is an OJR Staff Writer and Columnist. His work is archived at mattwelch.com.


[ Frontpage ] [ Opinion ] [ Matt Welch ] [ Back to Top ]
© Copyright 2001 Online Journalism Review