Last week was the big Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, with all the attendant gee-whiz product launches, the Bill Gates keynote, etc. But surely you know this already. The news business was all over the story, hyping—I mean covering—this sales event like it was something the public urgently needed to follow.
The Vegas show and this week's Macworld gathering in San Francisco are an annual rite, a sacred pilgrimage in which one tribe of the information nation, the journalists, travels from far and wide to bow down before a bigger, more powerful tribe—the techies. This year's coverage may have set a record for unmitigated cheerleading and free PR for the tech giants and their latest goods, courtesy of America's leading news outlets.
Here's John Seigenthaler anchoring the NBC Evening News last weekend: "Finally tonight, keeping up with the digital revolution. If you think the high-tech gadget you got for the holidays is cutting-edge, you'll want to see the newest inventions at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.... NBC's chief financial correspondent Anne Thompson on the latest ways to tune in and stay connected."
And here's Thompson: "At this year's Consumer Electronics Show, it's about having media your way. There's Sony's eBook available this spring ... [clip of a Sony exec hawking product] ... and a new way to blast music in your car."
Note how the correspondent, covering what is effectively a huge advertisement, throws in her own slogan for good measure—it's about having media your way—an allusion, intentional or not, to the old Burger King jingle. And how appropriate, since so much tech news these days is a sort of comfort food. It's happy talk about happy new products for soon-to-be-happy people.
The Macworld keynote, delivered annually by Apple founder Steve Jobs, is as anticipated as any State of the Union speech, but with more delight. The media await the Apple honcho's performance with childlike anticipation, as The Washington Post demonstrated in a dispatch this week that began: "As predictably as Santa Claus on Christmas morning, Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs will bring us something new today at the annual Macworld Conference & Expo in San Francisco. And as usual, there's a lot of figurative box-shaking going on over what the surprise might be."
Being extremely modern, we journalists like to think our craft has moved beyond the bad old days when business got a soft ride from the press, and the business pages read a bit like the old quotation from former General Motors President Charles E. Wilson: "What's good for the country is good for General Motors, and vice versa." The whole culture has learned to be tough and skeptical about business, with journalists leading the way.
Except that Microsoft, Apple, and Google are pretty much the General Motorses of today, and an awful lot of the coverage they get is right out of the Charles E. Wilson school. This is especially true of the general establishment outlets, while, in a small irony, the technology trade press has a lot of serious, critical fare. To read the pop coverage of these trade shows—news flash! amazing iMacs shipping soon!—it's as if these aren't companies at all. We cheer them as if they were disinterested do-gooders or beloved folk heroes, not profit-driven powerhouses with legions of lobbyists in D.C.
Partly, this is because the machines have a well-deserved popular following, and play a huge part in almost everyone's life. Nothing fits better in the "timely features" slot than a headline that includes the word "iPod." I've done it myself, once arguing in a column that newspapers should be more like iPods. And partly it's because the news business is converging with the businesses run by Gates, Jobs, and the Google guys. Those cool machines hold journalism's future, literally. So they fascinate us.
All of this is one more argument, you might think, for keeping our distance, for making sure that we don't bow and scrape every time they step up to the podium with a new product. But we just can't help ourselves.