A terrible titan and the hungry lions

April 06, 2000|By Sean Elder

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 Judge 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, Mr. 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 a result of 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 with the legal system, was echoed throughout the press coverage of the verdict.)

Blame to share

Some of it is the fault of Mr. Gates. 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 Judge 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. Mr. 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. Judge Jackson's description of Microsoft's "oppressive thumb on the scale of competitive fortune" was the favorite of newspapers the following day. The unflappable Mr. 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, Mr. Varney's tone conveyed, was so ... 20th century.

By evening, most of the news networks had sampled enough of Judge 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 Judge Jackson's decision in its entirety.

In a 10 p.m. special entitled "Target: Microsoft," Mr. Williams presented back-to-back clips from Tom Brokaw interviews with Mr. 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.

On message

If nothing else, Mr. 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 Mr. 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. But despite his sartorial overhaul, Mr. Gates hasn't 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 Monday. 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 some of the more conservative papers were taking a more sympathetic stance.

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