Off Message December 2005

Breaking Up With Google

Journalists have been making savage love to Google for several years now. Will it last?
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Media outlets will spend the next two weeks looking back at 2005 with the usual barrage of inane top-10 lists, favorite images, people of the year, and so forth.

That's all window dressing, strictly for the masses. The news tribe is already living in 2006, assigning the stories and thinking up the new angles.

What will those stories be about? More to the point, which famous people and institutions are due for a comeuppance in the coming year?

Squashing the powerful is an essential media skill, a leveling device that helps keep democracy democratic. It's also great theater. This year, for instance, President Bush went from Sun King to Dog Boy in a matter of about six months. He did most of the work by himself, but media folk were happy to pitch in as needed.

Who's next? I think the worm is about to turn on Google. The company's ascent has been too rapid, its successes too extravagant. As I wrote this sentence a few days ago, Google's stock price was $416, up more than 300 percent since the company went public a mere 16 months ago.

Regular people look at that run-up and say: "Nice work, Google, you must be doing something right." Media people look at the same numbers and hear a little voice: Somebody's got to stop this.

Google's rise and expanding reach—every day seems to bring an ambitious new project from the Googleplex—are especially galling to the media because they're partly responsible. Journalists have been making savage love to Google for several years now, churning out an astonishing succession of idolatrous stories about the two young men who founded the company, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and the blinding brilliance of everything that bears the name Google.

In a 60 Minutes piece that aired last January, Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt told CBS's Lesley Stahl that his employees were always coming up with new ideas that had never occurred to him. "That's the genius of Google," Schmidt said.

"Where did that genius come from in the first place?" Stahl wondered. "And where is Google going? How are they going to change the world and our lives in the future? We'll see in a minute."

The world and our lives hung in the balance until, after the break, came this exchange:

Stahl: Is it true that you're a gymnast?

Brin: I've done various acrobatic things, over time. I took some gymnastics classes at Stanford, and I've taken some circus classes since then at the—yeah, so the flying trapeze and trampoline and things.

Stahl: Really? Really?

Brin: Yeah, just from—but I'm not very good.

Rich, brilliant, and modest, to boot. A story in the House & Home section of The New York Times once referred to Brin and Page as "sexy Silicon Valley billionaires." Seldom are old-line media outlets so out there with their libidos. But billionaires are special, and the Google billionaires were the most special of all.

These love affairs always end badly. The reversal started last month, when word broke that the sexy ones had purchased a big jet. The Wall Street Journal reported the news in a front-page story that opened in curiously tart fashion, given that the subject was Google: "On the road, Sergey Brin and Larry Page have owned environmentally friendly hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius. In the air, they apparently prefer something roomier. Google Inc.'s two billionaire founders, both 32 years old, will soon be cruising the skies in a Boeing 767 wide-body airliner. They bought the used plane earlier this year, Mr. Page says."

Even more telling was this from the story's headline: "Included Are Two Staterooms, a Shower, Seats for 50; It's 'Good for the World.'"

That last phrase came from a quotation in which Page told The Journal that one purpose of the aircraft was "to be able to take large numbers of people to places such as Africa. I think that can only be good for the world." The paper noted: "Messrs. Brin and Page played a key role in setting up Google.org, a program for corporate philanthropy and socially minded investments that is funding projects in Africa and elsewhere."

Details, details. The "Good for the World" fragment migrated directly to the top of the Drudge Report and hung there for a while, like a semaphore the rest of the media would understand.

And they did. While technology blogs have been full of anti-Google sentiments for a long time, the mainstreamers are now joining in. A few weeks after the jet story, Boston Globe technology writer Hiawatha Bray opened a piece with the question, "Do you hate Google yet?" Reminding his readers that once upon a time Microsoft was the heroic upstart, Bray then asked, "Is it Google's turn?"

Last week, USA Today ran an is-Google-bad? story under the headline, "Once-Brotherly Image Turns Big Brotherly."

It's kind of amazing it took this long for journalists to start turning on Google. After all, the company has its own news operation, one of those information-wants-to-be-free deals that is eating the old media's lunch. Why help them?

In 2006, watch for media people to stop using those Google e-mail addresses ending in "@gmail.com" that were once so fashionable, a sign that you were plugged in to the cool people. Cool just moved on.

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William Powers is a columnist for National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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