SOLOMON: Corporate Rebels as Media Heroes
By now, we've run across similar stories many times: A scrappy innovator took on the business establishment and made a fortune. An engineer battled myopic bosses to develop a great new product. A brilliant computer nerd overcame entrenched foes and now heads the firm.Today's news reports seem to be more focused on mutiny than conformity in corporate suites. At a time when many companies are urging employees to challenge old concepts, the media coverage often makes the latest changes sound almost radical.Nowhere is this media tone more fervent than at Wired magazine. Founded in 1993, the colorful monthly calls itself the journal of "the Digital Revolution" -- and honors its readers as "digital revolutionaries."Wired went over the 300,000 circulation mark a year ago. The ornate magazine is quite influential with an affluent readership -- including many journalists -- eager to keep tabs on cutting- edge computer trends.When Wired published a special 12-page report last month, titled "Corporate Rebels," it cranked up the rhetoric of revolt."Inflexible bureaucracy, top-down management, tightly regulated industries, monopoly -- these are the tired remnants of the old corporate world order," Wired proclaimed in big type.But the magazine saw hope: "Those who break the shackles of business as usual -- corporate rebels -- set the pace for the next millennium. They are iconoclasts who question the status quo, cut through red tape, and challenge their bosses to greatness.... The smarter companies tap the uprising within, creating ways to turn the steam of the rebel into the fuel that drives the business."That's the kind of muddled verbiage that provides a hospitable environment for sleek full-page ads from outfits like Intel, Sony, Lucent Technologies, Microsoft, Smith Barney, Panasonic and U.S. Robotics.Wired mingles technical updates and human-interest features with idolatry of huge corporations now gaining unprecedented control over systems of mass communication. Evidently, Wired's editors are complacent about the dire implications for democracy.In recent years, Time and Newsweek have imitated a bit of Wired's style. But while the newsweeklies can print only a few cyber-fixated pages, Wired pumps out more than 200 in a single issue.And the hero worship is remarkable.For instance, IBM research fellow Ted Selker -- Wired's leading Corporate Rebel -- earned the headline "Rebel Without a Pause." Wired explained that Selker had a cause: He "battled engineering and manufacturing skeptics to create the trackpoint, the knobby red pointing device that helped boost sales of IBM's ThinkPad portable PC."Wow! That's a rebel for you.Right behind him were other Wired heroes: the wealthy founder of a discount global phone service; the designer of "a radical companywide internal network" for U S West Communications; a pioneer of on-line stock brokering...Wired's pretenses are grimly laughable. The magazine glorifies a procession of vaunted rebels for struggling to persuade a corporate hierarchy to let them generate profits. In a vague echo of '60s counterculture and New Age platitudes, these crusades are likened to the sacred quest for human freedom.The limits aren't hard to discern. When the magazine's corporate parent, Wired Ventures, tried to attract investment capital last year, it boasted that "none of the company's employees is represented by a labor union." Today, with more than 300 people on the Wired Ventures payroll, that's still the case.While Wired praises pseudo-rebels for "challenging conventional wisdom," the proof of their virtue is a higher rate of return. Rebellion is laudable if it results in making more money for the company.Of course, according to some mainstream news outlets, Wired itself qualifies as a corporate rebel. The New York Times has dubbed Wired "the icon of the Internet generation." The newspaper declared: "The genius of Wired is that it makes the Digital Revolution a self-fulfilling prophesy, both illuminating this new sub-culture and promoting it."Despite all the hype, skilled technicians and shrewd investors don't merit acclaim as profound visionaries."Happy is the country which requires no heroes," said the German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Such a nation may not exist today. But at least we might hope for a country where the news media can tell the difference between a heroic rebel and a clever entrepreneur.