Under a barrel

In his latest column, CNet News’s executive editor of commentary Charles Cooper does his level best to keep the options backdating scandal alive and well at Apple Inc. He starts by calling former Apple CFO Fred Anderson a liar, then goes on to cast Anderson as credible because Anderson is disagreeing with Apple’s board of directors, people that Cooper says would never fire Steve Jobs because he is their “meal ticket.”

Along the way, he distorts the facts without blinking to continue his decades-long crusade of venom against every Apple executive he can manage to name. Facts about Apple have rarely mattered to Cooper in his quest. Some examples from the current column:

Apple reported financial results far ahead of Wall Street’s expectations in its most recent quarter as profits soared 88 percent on a 21 percent sales climb. That was enough to propel the stock price past the $100 mark.

Those are the kinds of numbers that buy lifetime job security. The old-timers at the company remember the prolonged time of troubles (pre-Jobs) endured under a succession of increasingly feckless CEOs.

Since 1983, Apple Computer (now Apple, Inc.) has had exactly four chief executiev officers: John Sculley (1983-1993), Michael Spindler (1993-1996), Gil Amelio (1996-1997), and Steve Jobs (1997-present). Before Sculley, it appears that Apple didn’t have a formal “CEO” position, and only had two presidents before Sculley: Mike Scott and Mike Markkula. Cooper’s “succession of increasingly feckless CEOs” appears to refer to three people over 11 years.

Suffice it to say that Jobs would need to get caught on video robbing every gold brick in Fort Knox in broad daylight before this board would lift a finger.

“This board” undertook its own options investigation before it knew that Steve Jobs would be cleared. The SEC had access to all of the same information, as the SEC itself says, and also cleared Jobs. Cooper can’t stand this.

Anderson’s story is still only hearsay. Jobs remains untouched by the investigation into the stock option-backdating scandal. What’s got Apple on edge is the understanding that that could easily change.

If the federal government decides to start taking depositions, then the ignorance-is-bliss defense won’t hold up. And then we may learn that all these striving, corporate alpha execs just have faulty memories–or that somebody really is a fibber.

Cooper has no information that the SEC did not take depositions; his own CNet News site did not report that the SEC questioned Steve Jobs about these allegations, perhaps because the news broke at a time that required CNet News to note that CNet itself has problems with options backdating, a story that’s hard to find on CNet News itself.

Anderson, who paid $3.5 million to settle with the SEC, is free to rat out his old boss if he wants to.

Will he? If Anderson wants to rekindle our long-standing relationship, he’s got an open invitation to call me any time to fill in the blanks. Until then, we’re left to speculate on motivation.

“Is it irresponsible to speculate? It is irresponsible not to!” We’re sure that after Cooper opened his column by calling Anderson a bald-faced liar that Anderson will be eager to call Cooper and say things in private for Cooper to misrepresent, forcing Anderson into a public “I didn’t say that” game. Yet Cooper manages to gauge it as a threat – unless Anderson dishes something to Cooper, Cooper will just make stuff up because he has no other choice.

Anderson is still fuming about his forced resignation from Apple’s board. Following the conclusion of an internal investigation into the options backdating mess, he was served up as the sacrificial lamb.

Are the facts alleged in the SEC complaint also because he was a “sacrificial lamb?” Does Cooper have even one shred of evidence to support his actual claim here – that Apple made Anderson a scapegoat and the US government decided to support the company’s decision without facts? Of course not, but Cooper rarely needs facts to accuse Apple executives of malfeasance.

Would we be any better if we didn’t offer proof of that? Well, that’s the easy part, thanks to our massive back-catalog of Cooper’s venom. Cooper actually benefits from ZDNet and CNet Web changes over the past decade – most of his past fact-free columns trashing Apple and its executives are no longer available to people evaluating his credibility. That’s why MDJ and MWJ quoted him.

  • In July 1997, Cooper compared then-Apple CEO Gil Amelio to a homicidal dictator:

    But far from being the story of a can-do guy who turns Apple around, the ongoing soap opera is turning out to be a tragic tale of an overmatched executive who bears a disturbing resemblance to Emperor Nero.

    He said that advertising agency BBDO deserted Apple Computer, when in fact Apple initiated an ad agency review because it was unhappy with BBDO, and BBDO declined to fight for the account. NIne months later, Apple’s new agency, TBWAChiatDay, showed the new “Think Different” campaign that proved changing agencies was the right move.

    And in a mental glitch typical of stories at the time, Cooper said, “Talented junior and middle managers are leaving in a troubling brain drain robbing Apple of its future,” ignoring the fact that if these people had in fact been the ones pushing Apple’s “failed” strategies of 1994-1996, would losing them necessarily be a bad thing? In 1997, for some reason, Apple was commonly portrayed as unable to do anything right, yet when the people who made those decisions left, it was supposed to be unambiguously bad for the company. You can’t have that both ways. (MDJ 1997.07.03)

  • In March 1997, Amelio gave a long speech at the Internet World conference. The speech contained one line about more layoffs coming at Apple. Cooper covered the speech by reducing it to that single line, not mentioning anything else Amelio covered in the long presentation. (MDJ 1997.03.13)

  • In March 1998, just before Amelio’s book On the Firing Line: My 500 Days at Apple was published, Cooper trashed Amelio and the book without having read it. Without any inside knowledge, since Cooper was never an Apple employee and was not on the inside during the events Amelio described, Cooper called Amelio “just another Milli Vanilli” and said Amelio was “faking history.” From MWJ 1998.03.30:

    Cooper claims Amelio portrays himself as fighting covert and overt “schemers and dysfunctional managers undercutting his plans to resuscitate the company,” something that’s no distortion of history as Amelio occasionally complained about it during his tenure (as noted in MDJ 1997.02.03 but without an original quote). Amelio portrays journalists who write about Apple as clueless or vicious, although few regular MDJ or MWJ readers would have any problem finding serious problems in the writings of John Markoff (whose exclusive stories are always wrong), Jim Carlton (who’s selling a book claiming Apple can’t survive) and Jon Swartz (who seems to prefer headlines to facts), among others. And Cooper absolutely lambastes Amelio for “smothering his enemies with vitriol.”

    There’s only one thing worse than cluelessness, and that’s hypocrisy. [Cooper accused Amelio of “vitriol” but didn’t mention his own writing comparing Amelio to Nero.] Cooper didn’t like Amelio then, he doesn’t like Amelio now, and claiming that the book distorts history without proof to the contrary is more suited to politics than journalism.

  • Upon the release of the iMac – the computer that spawned a worldwide design revolution of brighter-colored objects and computers with more attention to design – Cooper said that the machine would not change the world, called Steve Jobs a “huckster” for foisting the iMac upon a public that was somehow too dumb to realize they were being conned. (MWJ 21998.08.17)

    That wasn’t enough for Cooper, though. Apple made the supportable and reproducable claim that the 333MHz PowerPC G3 processor in the original iMac actually beat the contemporary 400MHz Pentium II processor in several BYTEmark benchmarks, including the integer computation test. PC Magazine decided to test that and reported that the Pentium II and even a Celeron processor could beat the iMac in BYTEmark tests – but they got these scores by recompiling the benchmark suite with Intel’s super-optimizing compilers, while leaving the PowerPC version as an unoptimized version built with a little-used Motorola compiler. If the magazine had optimized the PowerPC version as heavily as the Intel version, the PowerPC benchmark would have won the test again.

    Cooper ignored the unfair test and took an opinion column about it to the much larger audience of USA Today, calling Apple’s completely supportable test “clearly overstated.” The only way to rig a Mac test, in Cooper’s world, was to find that the Mac came out on top. If that happened, Cooper thought it must be rigged. (MWJ 1998.08.31)

  • When the testimony of Dr. Avie Tevanian, chief architect of Mac OS X, went against Microsoft’s party line in the long antitrust trial, Cooper called the widely respected Tevanian a “doofus.” (MWJ 1998.11.07)

  • Even though Apple’s board of directors and investors were happy with Steve Jobs as “interim CEO” before he took the title permanently in January 2001, Cooper thought there was something vaguely wrong with it, though he couldn’t quite say what that was. (MWJ 1999.05.02)

  • In December 1999, Cooper praised Jobs as “exec of the year” even as he belittled every one of Apple’s accomplishments for that same year. He again called Amelio feckless and said the former CEO “had as much personality as a piece of wet toast,” said Jobs is “all show business,” and attributed the success of the “candy-colored iMac” and other Apple products like the iBook to “the reality distortion field.” (MWJ 1999.12.18)

  • When a contract worker at Apple leaked confidential product plans onto Yahoo, Apple sued a “John Doe” to discover who had leaked the information. For acting to protect its secrets, Cooper called Apple’s executives “a bunch of Grade A jerks” who “have stepped over the line yet again.” Cooper invoked the First Amendment, blissfully unaware that freedom of the press only means the government can’t stop you from publishing something, not that you can steal private information and make it public. He compared Apple’s response to the criminal activity of Watergate, and unilaterally decided that Apple has no right to keep secrets unless he gives the company special dispensation: “It’s all part of the game. The problem is that Apple is making up special rules as it goes along.” In Cooper’s world, where Jobs is a “huckster” and Tevanian a “doofus,” only Cooper gets to make the rules, and reserve high dudgeon for those who don’t play it his way. Cooper, interestingly, does not hold any other company to the standard of not being able to set its own product announcement dates. (MDJ 2000.08.07)

  • When Apple released the original flat-panel iMac G4, Cooper liked it. That was a real problem for the Apple basher, so this excerpt from MWJ 2002.02.18 shows how he tried to work around it:

    In his recent perspective for CNet News (the successor to ZDNet, his former publisher; the merge has wiped out the online archive of much of his older vitriol), Cooper again blasts Apple, more as a kind of self-therapy to remind himself why hates the company than to convince anyone else. The problem? Cooper really likes the iMac (Flat Panel), admitting that he wants one: “Not long ago, I ran a friend’s new iMac through its paces, concluding the evening suffering from an acute case of computer envy.” So he spends the rest of his article convincing himself – and, perhaps, his readers – that Apple’s ability to make superior products that perform tasks well is irrelevant. “The heart of what’s really wrong about Apple – what has always been wrong about Apple, ever since Steve Jobs’s first incarnation as CEO [ – is] the company’s congenitally poor job of reaching out to IT users.”

    There it is – Cooper’s corporate market, where he happens to have influence, is the Holy Grail of his computing. If a company can’t beat Microsoft at a game Microsoft defined, it’s doomed to irrelevance. The same writer who blasted Mac owners for being thoughtless lemmings here criticizes Apple for portraying PC users as the same in “those obnoxious, anti-corporate Super Bowl ads of the mid-1980s.” (There were only two such ads, and the first of them, “1984,” is widely regarded as the best television commercial of all time.)

    Cooper criticizes Apple for not jumping to the forefront of the market in 1994 “as the Internet moved front and center into the corporate world,” ignoring that at the time, Apple’s packaged operating system included a now-defunct system component that made every application into an E-mail program. PowerTalk was overengineered and ahead of its time, but only half of that is Apple’s fault. As [other news in this issue] shows, plugging the Macintosh into a network is not all Apple’s responsibility – if Microsoft will only make Windows clients for its software and holds a monopoly OS position, all Apple can do is persuade or sue. But Microsoft’s position on Exchange all but guarantees that employees at places like the San Jose Mercury News must have some kind of Windows machine just to stay connected.

    The worst part, of course, is the hypocrisy: in 1994, Macs were far easier to get onto the Internet than Windows machines. Apple had released MacTCP years earlier when Microsoft was still doing private networks; PowerTalk included Internet-friendly gateways, Claris Emailer was released in 1995, and in the early years of the Net, surveys showed that some 25%-30% of Web surfers were using the Mac OS when Apple had about 6% market share. Yet all Cooper could see is a non-Microsoft operating system in his Microsoft world. Had Apple had blindingly superior Internet features, he would have said exactly what he’s saying now: that’s not enough to overcome the Microsoft hegemony.

    Methodical madness

    Cooper won’t be happy unless Apple tries to become Microsoft, because in his limited view of technology there really isn’t anything else. He reinforces it wherever he can: an “interview” he conducted last year with Dell education manager Bill Rodrigues was little more than a free advertisement for Dell’s education plan. Cooper lobbed softball question after softball question with no understanding of what he was asking or the answers he was getting. He let Rodrigues say Dell had a superior model for working with school because it sold directly instead of through channels, not telling readers that Apple sells about 80% of its education systems directly as well. He let Rodrigues take all the credit for Apple’s education sales stumble. He let Rodrigues argue that because the corporate market tends to prefer Wintel that students have to “learn” it or be left behind, and lots more. It was an interview, sure, but Cooper’s questions and lack of challenge to the answers turned it into a commercial.

    In a recent interview with Microsoft’s Jim Allchin, an executive who lied on the stand in the antitrust trial (MWJ 1999.02.06) and who a year ago called open-source software “a threat to the American Way” (MWJ 2001.02.24), Cooper asked him what he thought of the new iMac. The rest of the interview, by the way, was about Windows XP and “.NET” services, something Allchin is responsible for at Microsoft. Out of the blue, Cooper throws in an iMac question, and won’t even print his full response: “It’s a warmed-over Mach (kernel) … The technology didn’t blow me away.” Cooper cut out the middle section, and didn’t even notice that Allchin didn’t respond to the iMac, he responded to Mac OS X, which wasn’t the question.

    When there’s an opportunity to make Apple look second-rate, Cooper can’t pass it up, nor has he [ever] been able to in the five years we’ve been tracking his reports. Given that Cooper is “the executive editor of commentary at CNet News.com,” it might explain why CNet News never fails to find a headline that makes Apple look bad. The end of Cooper’s evisceration of Apple this time ends, “It may be impossible for the leopard to shed its spots, but Apple could make more headway into the corporate world – even at this late date – if it had a mind to solve the problem. The trouble is that it just doesn’t give a damn.” He can’t even get the cliche right – leopards don’t change their spots. When it comes to Apple, Cooper is the leopard that can’t change his spots – and doesn’t give a damn.

    No pun on the currently-in-development Leopard was intended – Cooper can’t even see the present clearly, much less the future.

  • We have other, less egregious examples of Cooper taking joy at any misstep by Apple, real or perceived, but you get the point. Cooper is the prototype for Paul Thurrott – he hates not only Apple but also its executives, employees, and customers. Cooper takes glee anytime he can blast the company, and does not pause at publishing fiction or distortion about Apple or its products to enable his insults. Every Apple product is overpriced or a loser on launchin Cooper’s world, and if it turns out to be otherwise, well, all you people who purchased it were just brainwashed morons. Cooper has spent a career kissing up to Microsoft and blasting everyone else, a task for which he has such passion that little things like truth become unimportant casualties.

    Cooper publishes opinion, but as the cliché says, he’s entitled to his own opinion, not his own facts. And yet after ten years, despite consistently being wrong and hypocritcal on nearly every Apple-related topic, one of the biggest tech news sites in the world still gives him front-page space to allege wrongdoing at Apple and a coverup by the SEC without a single piece of evidence except a statement from a man he calls a liar – a statement that can be completely true and not contradict anything the SEC or Apple said, as noted today in MDJ 2007.04.27.

    Cooper’s absolute lack of objectivity on Apple, or even his acceptance of the company’s existence, has made him write badly about the company for over a decade, yet he never gets called on it – he merely “fails upward” to positions of greater prominence, while those who point out his errors and bias are just “Apple fanatics” in Cooper’s world. Of course, it’s CNet’s right to publish the opinions of whomever the company chooses, and to give them whatever level of prominence they think those opinions deserve.

    It would just be nice, given Cooper’s decade-long track record of deception and attack, if someone would call them on it.