Press Man: The Steve Jobs Snow Job
Of the dead you shall speak no ill, the ancients taught, and as an often dazzled, frequently frustrated, occasionally maddened user of his company’s products, I’ve had no reason to think or speak ill of Steve Jobs since his death in October. I’m an advocate of rapacious capitalism, red in tooth and claw, and we are unlikely to ever find a more rapacious capitalist—a colder, more calculating and ruthless capitalist—than Steve Jobs.
Which is why I am confounded by the rose petals that came fluttering from every media outlet this fall, first at the news of Jobs’s retirement and then, a few weeks later, when word came of what we are apparently now required to call his “passing.” Since when did liberal journalists become fans of rapacious capitalists?
Reporters and columnists who cover business may be the most ideologically motivated journalists in any large newsroom. Various explanations have been advanced for why this is so. One possibility is envy: If you’re of a certain cast of mind, few experiences are more embittering than watching people who are dumber and less sophisticated than you make a lot more money. Whatever its cause, we shouldn’t question the hostility that most business reporters express toward buying, selling, marketing, investing, and every other underregulated activity that a businessman uses to create wealth that the reporters can’t get their hands on.
Yet even business writers loved Jobs—especially business writers. Steven Pearlstein, a left-wing, Pulitzer-winning business columnist for the Washington Post (but I repeat myself), advised President Obama to “think big” like Steve Jobs, whose “brilliance and strength of character” had made his company “a symbol of what American workers and American business and the American economy can achieve.”
Pearlstein almost outdid another veteran business writer, Joe Nocera of the New York Times, who has called Jobs “the single most indispensable chief executive on the planet [he was referring to Earth]….It’s exhilarating watching him work his magic in the marketplace.” So magical was Jobs that Nocera, in his tribute, credited him with inventions he hadn’t invented, like the first personal computer equipped with a mouse. The misattribution was scarcely noticeable in those dizzy days of uncontrolled eulogizing. Nocera could have said Jobs invented the weed whacker and readers would have believed it. (“A visionary genius who forever changed the way Americans relate to yard work…”)
Other liberal commentators were so grief-stricken by Jobs’s death that they had no choice but to insult Republicans. In honor of the “great inventor, great businessman, great innovator, great American,” Jamie Malanowski of Washington Monthly mocked the conservative interest in marginal tax rates: “Do you think for an instant he ever said, ‘You know, this i-Pad [sic] is just sensational, and the i-phone [sic] is just going to rock the universe. Thank God the marginal tax rate isn’t three points hire [sic—he’s blogging!], because otherwise, I just couldn’t be bothered.’”
The environmental reporter for ThinkProgress wondered, “What with Republicans slashing funding for clean energy, who else will be the engine of innovation, efficiency, and dematerialization?” (Dematerialization? Now that would be magic.) And the veteran journalist James Warren contrasted Jobs’s futuristic vision with Republicans who “think small”; he cited House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s reluctance to spend federal money on disaster relief unless it was offset by other spending cuts.
“If one can’t help neighbors in need,” Warren wrote, “it doesn’t speak well of figuring out the future.”
It was an interesting contrast to draw, because one thing Jobs himself avoided doing was “helping neighbors in need.” There is no public record of him giving a dime to charity, and on several occasions he was ostentatious in his refusal to do so. When Andrew Ross Sorkin, post-passing, dared to broach the subject in the New York Times, he sounded almost apologetic. Jobs’s “single-minded focus on work over philanthropy,” as Sorkin delicately called his stinginess, was an extension of his belief “that he could do more good focusing his energy on continuing to expand Apple.”
Now, this is a defensible position, for, as Milton Friedman pointed out, an executive’s first responsibility is to his shareholders, and by creating wealth he will help everyone who participates in the general economy. (Some people call this “trickle down.”) But it’s impossible to imagine a Times writer making the same argument on behalf of any other billionaire.
Indeed, Jobs’s astonishing success with Apple was a model of predatory capitalism—like a fantasy concocted by Vance Packard, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, and Friedrich Engels during a boozy all-night game of “Top This.” As the inventor, producer, and marketer of high-end, stylish consumer goods, Jobs showed no sign of the egalitarian impulse that sometimes mollifies liberal critics of business.
His eulogists compared him with Henry Ford, another inventor-turned-marketer who liberated the common man with the private automobile. But that wasn’t Jobs’s method at all. The true counterparts to Ford in the personal-computer revolution were Michael Dell and (yes) Bill Gates, who pushed down the price of a valuable, rarefied technology so that it could be accessible to nearly everyone. But they are usually contrasted unfavorably with Jobs—as colorless nerds who weren’t even Buddhists.
What an opportunity the liberal press missed! There’s hardly a cliché in the leftist lexicon liberals couldn’t have applied to Jobs and his customers: commodity fetishism, false consciousness, objectification and alienation, manufactured wants, the marketing of desire, and, most obviously, planned obsolescence. This last is the hoary charge from mid-century that American businessmen designed a product so it would soon be superseded by a similar product, compelling consumers to buy, buy, buy.
The accusation suits the case of Jobs and Apple. He kept his market churning and his customers constantly in estrus, MasterCards drawn. Every time he unveiled a new gadget, he sold it as epochal, the culmination of centuries of human striving—until the following year, when it would be withdrawn from the market and kicked down the memory hole, to be replaced by a newer, often more expensive culmination.
With his mock turtleneck, jeans, and sneakers—if anyone wrote an appreciation that didn’t mention the sneakers, I missed it—Jobs didn’t look like a Thomas Nast cartoon. Still, no cigar-chomping robber baron ever manipulated customers with greater ingenuity or success. His manufacturing plants emitted nearly four million tons of CO2 a year, and the innards of his products required the environmentally disastrous mining of minerals like coltan. And yet a “green” website could run a story about Apple’s environmental practices under the headline, “Does It Matter?” The answer, of course, was no.
Forget Thomas Nast’s cigar-chomper. A more suitable image for Jobs is the dominatrix. Whatever indignity he placed before his customers, he could make them pay for it: iPod batteries they couldn’t replace, music they could buy from iTunes but not transfer to other devices, even the special screws he invented so they couldn’t pry open his machine and fix it themselves. “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” he famously said, and his axiom applied even to stuff that they did not, in fact, want.
Perhaps my favorite post-passing line came from Scientific American, where one writer noted, “An original iPod would be laughably inadequate today.” In one sense, this observation is itself laughable—what, an original iPod won’t play music anymore?—but from the Jobsian perspective it’s perfectly sensible: He had taught customers to crave more, and they did.
I suppose I should repeat: All this is fine with me. Capitalism is a splendid system, the surest and most efficient means to general prosperity, and Jobs understood its mechanisms better than any living practitioner. Among those he mastered was the art of using flattery to lure the customers into the tent. “Here’s to the crazy ones,” Jobs wrote in a legendary Apple advertising campaign. “The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently.” I can’t imagine a more concise description of the self-image held by the aging Boomers who man America’s newsrooms. They so terribly want to be rebels, to be troublemakers—especially against the capitalism that exploits the vain and weak-willed—just so long as they can make enough money to afford the iPad 3, due out next year. The upgrades are supposed to be insanely great.