NEAL CONAN, host:
If you turned in to hear our conversation with Stan Lee, the head of Marvel Comics, that interview was postponed. We hope to get him on the air in a couple of weeks. But in the meantime, earlier this week, the Project for Excellence in Journalism put out a study that finds that two technology companies hogged much of the media spotlight last year. Apple narrowly beat out Google, and everybody else finished a long way behind.
The report provides more fodder for the chorus that complains about both the quantity of coverage these two firms receive and about the quality, that much of it is overwhelmingly positive. Slate columnist Farhad Manjoo pleads guilty but argues it's justified.
Do you think Apple and Google deserve the coverage they get? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Farhad Manjoo's column "Why I Won't Stop Writing About Apple and Google" was posted this week on Slate.com. There's a link to that site on our webpage, again, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And Farhad joins us from his home in Palo Alto. Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. FARHAD MANJOO (Slate.com): Hi and good to be here.
CONAN: So, Farhad, you estimate about a quarter of your articles in the past year are about Apple, nearly as many about Google. How do you defend that?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MANJOO: There - well, I write about technology. And the reason I like writing about technology is I like - one of the things that attracts me to technology is sort of anticipating the future, anticipating how people will communicate and share information, you know, five, 10 years from now.
And as far as I can tell, there are sort of - as far as we can predict, there are two companies that are really defining that future, and that's Apple and Google. I mean, they're making the technologies that essentially other companies are kind of copying or following, you know, trying to rival these two companies. They're setting the trends. And, basically, everyone else seems to be following.
CONAN: It was interesting what you wrote about Google, that their mission statement, to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful, which, you say, could be, you know, a lot of gas-baggery if it didn't seem that they were actually trying to do it.
Mr. MANJOO: Right. I mean, lots of companies have those kinds of extremely ambitious and kind of corny-sounding mission statements, but Google is kind of - is doing amazing things. It's digitizing the world's books, so it has this effort to go out to libraries and scan books and make them searchable online. It's building a translation system, so you can go on to Google and translate things from one language to another. These are all amazing, you know, sort of science-fiction-like things that we - many people wouldn't have even considered possible 10 years ago. And Google is, you know, pioneering many of these technologies that we'll probably be using, you know, for many years to come.
CONAN: And yet, not all of their efforts are hits. We remember Wave.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MANJOO: Right. I mean, one of the main differences, I think, between these two companies that I cover often, Apple and Google, is that Google is, you know, much more experimental, much more kind of willing to fail or willing to take chances on new technologies, whereas Apple kind of tries to always hit home runs. It releases fewer products, but the products that it does release, you know, tries to make them, you know, the biggest products in their category. We've seen that with the iPod, iPhone and then the iPad recently. And they've always been, you know, blockbusters.
CONAN: And a lot of people say wait a minute. There were smart phones before the iPhone. You know, Apple is not all that darned innovative.
Mr. MANJOO: Yeah, I think that's, you know, so one of the consequences of my writing about Apple so much is that I get a lot of criticism from people who don't like Apple, who don't like Apple's sort of business philosophy and who kind of don't like Apple fans and consider them snooty and elitist.
And one of the criticisms that I hear often is that, you know, look at the iPhone. It wasn't the first smartphone. It wasn't the first phone with Web access. There are a lot of things that weren't first about it.
But I think what's interesting about Apple and about kind of the technologies they put is that they do things differently and better. They, you know, change the way we look at something like the smartphone. And as a result, all smartphones these days are trying to look like the iPhone. It did sort of definitively changed the category.
Mr. MANJOO: That's...
CONAN: No, go ahead.
Mr. MANJOO: And I think that sort of marks them as a company. Other companies - when Apple releases a product, you notice that the rest of the tech industry tries to release products that look a lot like Apple products.
CONAN: And the same thing for the iPad, where just RIM, who makes the Blackberry, apparently coming out with something next year that's going to look like - a lot like an iPad.
Mr. MANJOO: Right, right. And then, you know, several other tech companies are releasing tablet computers that look and operate very much like what Apple put out.
CONAN: The other question that people have is, why does Apple, for example, get so much more coverage - and as you say, more positive coverage for the most part - than something like Microsoft?
Mr. MANJOO: So I mean, I think there are a couple of reasons. So those that I mentioned were - you know, are kind of the substantive reasons. I mean, Apple is definitely doing really well in the tech industry. It surpassed Microsoft earlier this year to become the most valuable tech company on the stock market.
But, you know, there are other kind of non there are more flashy reasons why Apple gets a lot of coverage. I mean, they do a lot of smart PR things. They have this penchant for secrecy. So everything is very secret, which makes a lot of people interested. So when Apple releases something, nobody knows what it's going to be. And so, you know, like uncovering that secret and we reporters pay a lot of attention to Apple in the run-up to its big product unveilings and then afterward.
And the other thing is that, you know, Steve Jobs, the CEO, is just kind of one of those people who has a very engaging and attractive personality for people who - for reporters. I mean, he's he's pugnacious. He says zany, crazy things sometimes. And he just has a compelling story. He's much more - he's also just much more articulate and fun to watch than, you know, your standard business - you know, your standard CEO. And you know, that's the kind of thing people in the press like.
CONAN: We're talking with Farhad Manjoo, the technology columnist at Slate.com, about why he's going to continue writing about Google and Apple. 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com.
And let's start with Alex(ph), Alex calling from Oakland.
ALEX (Caller): Well, thank you. Yes. I'm trying to find out if there's any way I can escape Google. I know that Google and Yahoo! are the two largest search engines and that they own, they own some search engines that are in use by another name. And I'd like to know which ones - which search engines, if there are any, are completely independent that I can use if I want to avoid Google or Yahoo!? And second...
CONAN: Well, why don't we do one thing at a time, Alex.
ALEX: All right.
Mr. MANJOO: Okay. So, you know, Microsoft has tried to make a big push recently with its own search engine, Bing, which is pretty great. It's pretty good. It's, you know, offers good results. And if you want to escape Google, go to Bing.
CONAN: To that rival upstart, Microsoft.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MANJOO: Right. Exactly.
CONAN: Alex, you had another question?
ALEX: Yes. I'd like to know why you think that Apple and Google are such altruistic organizations in some way. You sound - you're putting a very nice face on them when they - several of the things they have done, I think, are kind of shady. I mean, Google, for instance in its drive to digitize all the books, they are claiming - and I don't know if this has been settled or not yet. But they were claiming - and perhaps still are - that anything that they put on their website that has no owner, the copyright has expired and so on, and is essentially in the public domain, is theirs.
Mr. MANJOO: Yes. So...
ALEX: That if you want to...
CONAN: Yeah. We got the point, Alex.
ALEX: ...access, then you are going to have to pay them for something that I think should be in the public domain. And Apple, you know, recently when...
CONAN: And again, let's do one thing at a time, Alex.
ALEX: All right. I'm sorry, yeah.
Mr. MANJOO: Just a small clarification there. I mean, I think that - so Google and the publishing industry has been fighting this lawsuit over this issue that you raised for a while. Google wants to digitize books. And if it finds a book where the owner is not known, it'll not put the entire book on the website - on the Web, but just put a small snippet around a term that you search for. It will show you that snippet, not the entire the book. But you're right. These - one of the interesting things about Google and Apple is that they do things that are kind of disruptive to other industries. I mean, Apple, we've seen this with the music industry. And Google has been sort of disruptive to all kinds of industries: to the advertising industry, to newspapers and TV.
And they, you know - I do write often about these two companies, and I think the tech press does. But it's not all positive. I mean, I think we've criticize both companies for kind of crazy things they do. You know, Apple gets into a lot of trouble, I think, in a lot of - gets a lot of criticism, justified criticism, for the way it sort of micromanages its devices and doesn't let developers put, you know, any programs they want on it. I think those kinds of things - you know, both companies get a lot of criticism. But one of the main reasons, I think, they get criticism is because they're doing kind of big things that affect lots of other, you know, industries and lots of other kind of established players.
CONAN: We're talking about the media mania for Google and Yahoo! with Farhad Manjoo of Slate.com. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.
And let's go next to Isaiah(ph). Isaiah with us from Philadelphia.
ISAIAH (Caller): Yeah. Hi, Neal. Can you hear me?
CONAN: Yup. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ISAIAH: Yeah, okay. Thanks for taking the call. You know, my beef - and this is not so much with your guest's reporting of Apple in terms of sort of the business side of things, the long-term business. But as, you know, as a product, especially like the iPhone, I feel that a lot of this coverage is very - it's self-referential for, like, a very specific group of people, a sort of certain upper-class people who use this technology in their - you know, especially if everyone is getting poorer.
There are a lot of other technologies that, you know, this whole other class of people are using that basically are unknown. And you know, I read the Times business section all the time. For example, just to throw one out, I mean, I sort of run up - I discovered MetroPCS, and this isn't a plug necessarily. And it's not a - I mean, it's a phone company, but you know, there are products out there that give you pretty interesting stuff for much cheaper prices, and I just don't see these things mentioned in the news. It's as if they don't exist.
ISAIAH: That's my comment.
Mr. MANJOO: No. I think that I think that's a valid point. I think, in general, we sort of - the kinds of people who gravitate toward reporting about technology are people like me who tend to be early adapters. I, you know, buy new stuff. I like reporting on kind of the latest gadgets out there, and I'm fairly at ease with new technology. But I don't think that represents, you know, I think that sort sets up a blind spot in our coverage, where it doesn't represent, I think, all of the many different kinds of people who use technology. The group of people who perhaps use MetroPCS, I think that's a great example, actually. I have been meaning to write about that for a while because I think it's interesting that, you know, you could get a cell phone that cheaply that perhaps doesn't do as much as something like the iPhone, which gets a lot of attention but perhaps covers a much, you know, wider and more diverse audience.
CONAN: All right. Isaiah, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
ISAIAH: Okay, thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go to - this is Jeffrey. Jeffrey with us from Saint Paul.
Mr. JEFFREY DAVIS(ph) (Caller): My name is Jeffrey Davis. I'm calling from Saint Paul.
CONAN: Go ahead. You're on the air.
Mr. DAVIS: Okay. Well, I guess I'm kind of elaborating a bit on what Isaiah has to say there about some things that are just like getting no coverage whatsoever. You know, like when I first called I mentioned, you know, I use Ubuntu Linux. I've set up some guys at work with it, with the OS and stuff and, like, they think they can either shell out a whole bunch of money for Microsoft Office. I'd say, hey, there's open source. There's OpenOffice. But you never read about the open-source stuff in the papers, and it's just a shut up. Boy, you talk about innovation, take a look at Ubuntu and Linux - the innovation is amazing, and the great thing, it's free.
Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. I had a laptop recently, a Windows laptop, that was like four years old that I was ready to throw out, and then I decided to give this software - this operating system - Ubuntu Linux - a chance. And I loaded it on there and it worked remarkably. And I wrote a story about that. That was the one story about Linux that I've written in the past year, I think. It was a positive story, and I told everyone to go out and get it and put it on computers that might not have had - they might have been thinking about throwing out.
I think you're right though. In general, people don't cover those kinds of technologies. I kind of feel like I have a good reason for not covering those technologies. They appeal to, I think, like - I was able to install Linux. It was easy, but it wasn't something that most of my readers who are kind of a consumer audience who aren't very tech-savvy, it's not something that most of them would be able to do or be willing to do. I think that it - those kinds of stories appeal to a smaller set that I try to cater to sometimes, but I don't think it's kind of the majority of the audience.
Mr. DAVIS: (Unintelligible) that sounds to me kind of elitist, a little snobbish, because I mean, you know, I'm a warehouseman. I'm not an IT guy or anything, and I navigated it just fine. The few questions I have, there was Ubuntu forums and such like that. I was able to find the information, got my Flash player is working pretty painlessly and everything else. And actually, if anything, is I found it to be easier on me because once I've set it up, I'm good. I mean, I'm not getting attacked by Spyware and viruses. I'm not constantly maintaining it the way I used to have to do my Windows machines. And so actually maybe you ought to give your audience a little more credit than it seems like you're giving them.
CONAN: All right, Jeffrey. Thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it. And you do - we just have a few seconds left, Farhad, but you do expect that these two companies are going to continue to dominate coverage - maybe some more room for other things like this Linux product, but yeah?
Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. I mean, well, I expect it, but the other thing that sort of happens in this business all the time is that new companies come along that completely change your view of technology. I mean, Facebook and YouTube weren't around, you know, in the earlier part of this decade. Now they're some of the biggest companies that, you know, that are sort of dominating the press's attention. And I'm sure that there are companies being started right now that are going to kind of completely remake how we think of the tech world, you know, next year or two years from now. So we'll see what happens.
CONAN: Farhad Manjoo, thank you very much as always for your time.
Mr. MANJOO: Great. Thanks a lot.
CONAN: He writes for Slate.com and joined us from his home in Palo Alto.
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