Explaining the press corps' crush on Apple.

Media criticism.
Oct. 13 2005 7:04 PM

The Apple Polishers

Explaining the press corps' crush on Steve Jobs and company.

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Video crush
Click image to expand.
Video crush

I don't hate Apple. I don't even hate Apple-lovers. I do, however, possess deep odium for the legions of Apple polishers in the press corps who salute every shiny gadget the company parades through downtown Cupertino as if they were members of the Supreme Soviet viewing the latest ICBMs at the May Day parade.

The Apple polishers buffed and shined this morning in response to yesterday's Steve Jobs-led introduction of the new video iPod. The headlines captured their usual adoration for the computer company: "Apple Scores One Against Microsoft In Video Battle" ( Seattle Post-Intelligencer); "Video iPod Premieres in Apple's Latest Showcase of Dazzling New Gadgets" ( San Francisco Chronicle); "iPod Evolves from Sound to Sight") ( Detroit Free Press); "The Video iPod: It Rocks" ( Fortune); "Apple Seeds New Markets With Video Version of iPod" ( Globe and Mail).

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The pairing of the V-iPod announcement with news that the iTunes store will sell Desperate Housewives and other ABC fare drove the story to Page One of USA Today and onto the biz fronts of the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. Among American newspapers, the New York Times is easily the most enamored of things iPod, having run 63 stories with the word "iPod" in the headline in the last 12 months. That's almost as many as the Post and the Los Angeles Times combined.

What explains the press corps' exuberance for Apple in general and the iPod in particular? After all, the portable video player isn't a new product category—Archos, RCA, Samsung, and iRiver got there months and months ago. The excitement can't be due to the undersized screen, which measures only 2.5 inches diagonal, or the skimpy two hours of battery life when operated in video mode. As I paged through a Nexis dump of the V-iPod coverage, I searched in vain for a single headline proclaiming "Apple Introduces Ho-Hum Player" or an article comparing the V-iPod's technical specs to those of competing brands. At least the techie readers of Engadget, free of the Apple mind-meld, recognize the V-iPod as a deliberately crippled by copy protection, low-res, underpowered video appliance that is merely Apple's first try in the emerging market of video players.

The inordinate amount of attention paid to Apple's launches must be, in part, a function of the company's skill at throwing media events, stoking the rumor mills, and seducing the consuming masses. All this, plus the chatter-inducing creativity of Apple's ad campaigns, and its practice of putting its machines in pretty boxes make writing about Apple products more interesting than assessing the latest iterations of the ThinkPad or Microsoft Office.

Another thing that sets Apple product launches apart from those of its competition is co-founder Jobs' psychological savvy. From the beginning, Jobs flexed his powerful reality-distortion field to bend employees to his will, so pushing the most susceptible customers and the press around with the same psi power only comes naturally. Although staffed by dorks and drizzlerods, Apple projects itself and its products as the embodiment of style and cool. The population of Apple's parallel universe? A paltry 1.8 percent of PCs worldwide.

But reality distortion doesn't account for how Apple has captured 74 percent of a market it didn't invent with a device it didn't engineer single-handedly. It was Apple's good luck to develop and improve its player during the period that Sony, the previous king of portable entertainment, acted like a music company eager to discourage the spread of MP3s rather than a hardware company keen on developing the replacement for the Walkman. Still, you've got to give Jobs and company credit for producing an aesthetically blessed product and then wisely making it compatible with Windows machines a half-year after its November 2001 introduction rather than fencing it inside the Mac ghetto. In doing so, Apple gave Windows users a way to partake of the Apple mystique for $300 without having to buy a new computer, learn a new operating system, and invest in replacement software.

Apple manipulates several narratives to continue to make its products interesting fodder for journalists. One is the never-ending story of mad genius Steve Jobs, who would be great copy if he were only the night manager of a Domino's pizza joint. The next is Apple's perpetual role as scrappy underdog—reporters love cheerleading for the underdog without ever pausing to explore why it isn't the overdog. (This is why the Brooklyn Dodgers will always rate higher in the minds of writers than the superior New York Yankees.) Apple incites fanaticism about its products via ad campaigns and evangelist outreach programs designed to make its customers feel as though they're part of a privileged and enlightened elite. One unnamed loser at Slate says today's V-iPod news made her want to rush out and buy one, even though she already owns two iPods, one of which she bought three weeks ago.

This mock ad for iProduct cracks the fetishistic code of the Apple cult:

Apple iProduct. You'll Buy it. And You'll Like It.
Do you like Apple products? Do you live for every product announcement, every incremental upgrade, every rumor and screenshot? Do you wank and blare and drone and fucking gurgle about Apple products morning, noon, and night? Then get ready for iProduct. You'll be blown away. No matter what it is.

If the press corps possessed any institutional memory, it would recall the introduction of the Apple III+, the Lisa, the Macintosh Portable, the Mac TV, the Newton, the Apple G4 Cube, and eWorld. All were greeted with great press fanfare before falling off the edge of the world. Hell, all the press corps really needs to put Apple products in perspective is a few short-term memory neurons focused on the fanfare visited upon recent, mediocre iPod releases. Only a year ago the company received excited press notices when it introduced the iPod Photo, now acknowledged to be a failed product. I searched Nexis to find a mention of the iPod Photo in the hundreds of V-iPod newspaper stories from today and found only one. Of the wildly heralded but totally average iPod Shuffle, released in January 2005, I found only two.

When the V-iPod's super-duper, long-lasting, big-screen replacement shows up in 12 months, the press will have forgotten this second-rate box, too.

******

Interest declared: I have worked for Slate since it was founded by the cult of Microsoft, an Apple competitor, about 10 years ago. Slate is now owned by the Washington Post Co., which is controlled by a family cult of Class A stock owners led by Donald E. Graham.

I'm eager to hear from all of you dear pod people, but before you e-mail me at slate.pressbox@gmail.com, please note that the target of this article is not your beloved Apple gadgets but press coverage. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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