In the mid-1990s, aside from tobacco companies, Microsoft (NYSE: MSFT) and its CEO Bill Gates were perhaps the media’s favorite corporate villain. Now he’s a media darling.
On the March 3, 1998, then CBS “Evening News,” anchor Dan Rather suggested Microsoft needed to be reined in by the federal government. “Some policing may be needed along the information superhighway,” he said, adding that “fellow-travelers say Gates is trying to run them off the road.”
A month later on the April 21, 1998, “World News Tonight,” ABC’s Peter Jennings warned his audience that “millions of everyday computer users are still anxious that the more omnipresent Microsoft becomes, the more we computer users will have to do things the Bill Gates way.”
Eight years later, strong profits have put “Big Oil” in the media’s crosshairs while Gates has become a media hero and philanthropist.
Evening newscasts for ABC, CBS, and NBC heaped praise on the Time magazine 2005 Person of the Year on June 15. Gates was lionized for his work as a businessman and a philanthropist, a far cry from their slanted coverage just eight years ago.
“Tonight we begin with a man who has truly changed the world, and in the process changed all of our lives,” substitute anchor Campbell Brown began NBC’s “Nightly News.”
NBC correspondent Anne Thompson presented Gates as a man of two passions: software and philanthropy. Thompson described Gates as a “visionary who helped make the computer a device we can’t live without.”
ABC and CBS similarly lauded Gates’s profitable business ventures and his charity work.
“He is the richest man in the world. He founded the company that’s had a more profound impact on modern life than any other,” ABC’s Charles Gibson reported, opening “World News Tonight.”
But now, gushed Gibson, “Rather than making money now, he wants to devote his life to giving it away.”
Over at CBS, “Evening News” anchor Bob Schieffer pronounced an early verdict from history on Bill Gates’s contributions to the world. “Sometimes many years must pass before we can make a real judgment on the impact someone has had on his or her time, but surely that is not the case with Bill Gates, who perhaps more than anyone opened the Internet to people in every part of the world,” Schieffer declared as he set up a report by correspondent Anthony Mason.
Mason went on to note that “Microsoft has grown to more than 61,000 employees in over 100 countries. It generates almost a billion dollars in profits every month.”
While it’s true Microsoft has changed the world for the better while being strongly profitable, the media don’t have the same view of oil companies, which generate far smaller profit margins in a capital-intensive industry.
According to finance.google.com, Microsoft’s net profit margin of nearly 32 percent far out-ranked Exxon-Mobil (NYSE: XOM), ConocoPhilips (NYSE: COP), and BP-Amoco (NYSE: BP) whose 2005 net profit margins were 9.71, 7.28, and 8.8 percents respectively.
Even so, the media have frequently attacked the oil industry for “record profits” and suggested that a “windfall profits tax” is in order to punish their success.