"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 15 September 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Dire Wolff



Michael Wolff: disgraced NetGuide

impresario, failed

Internet industrialist,

tragically out-of-depth digital

pundit, pariah to venture

capitalists across the nation.

There are already so many

reasons to feel sorry for the

guy that sometimes you almost

forget to dislike him. He has

disgruntled former employees

grumbling for a pound of his

flesh. Brill's Content has

shattered (or tried to shatter)

the house of glass Wolff built

up in his unsexy tell-all book,

Burn Rate: How I Survived the

Gold Rush Years on the

Internet. The book itself spends

so much time building up to a

"liquidity event" that you can't

help but feel a pang of sympathy

when the only liquidity event

ends up happening in Wolff's

trousers, and he's stuck with

nothing to do but write a catty

memoir about his unreliable



But then, our sympathy isn't

worth much, squandered as it

usually is on the foiled

villains in Walker, Texas

Ranger. The real reason to feel

sorry for Michael Wolff is that

he seems to be married to the

most unpleasant woman ever to

wield a rolling pin. Wolff may

think his wife Alison's lawyerly

lines of inquiry in the pages of

Burn Rate reveal a common-sense

approach to the belabored

craziness of the Internet, but

all it tells us is what an

incorrigible shrew she is: I

called Alison, who was annoyed

by my panic. "What do you mean

you're going to get squeezed?"

"Who exactly do you think you

are?" she asked, in a tone that

was not entirely flattering. "Do

you have any idea how to play

this game?" It's a measure of

what a sourpuss Wolff is that

the one person he likes comes

across in his book as a cross

between Alice Kramden and

Hitler. With a henpeck like that

waiting for him at the end of

every day, it's no wonder Wolff

turns so sullen over the course

of his book - doodling

half-assed epiphanies in his day

planner during meetings where

he's supposed to be keeping his

company, Wolff New Media, alive.

(Most of these epiphanies seem

to be about how physically

unattractive everybody else is -

an odd concern, given the

author's resemblance to Simon

Birch.) Eventually, Alison has

to remind him, "This is not high

school. This is business."


High school can be tough,

though, and now that he's

graduated from his so-called

Internet life into a career as

an illiterary memoirist, Wolff

seems to be in better spirits -

though he still strains visibly

to seem like a cool kid. In a

preemptive strike against Brill,

he wrote a column for his new

overlords at New York magazine

in which he warned, "It's a

funny book." When you have to

tell people you're funny, it's

usually a sign that you're not -

and Wolff, whose book is filled

with references to how he said

this thing "playfully" or that

thing "teasingly," tries harder

than most. Indeed, it's a little

disappointing that Content

confined itself to boilerplate

"So-and-so denies making these

quotes" fact checking. Given

Wolff's hack thriller habit of

ending every chapter on a

portentous piece of dialog

("You don't want to know," our

banker said. "You really

don't." "Rest in peace, baby."

"You little fucking shit! I'm

going to get you! I'll get

you!"), finding misquotes in Burn

Rate is about as impressive as

finding Nick in a Greek

restaurant. The only real scoop

would have been to discover that

the people Wolff is writing

about really do talk like

characters in a Clive Cussler




Still, we're happy for Wolff's

success because - we'll just

come out and say it - Wolff is

something of a hero to us, a

Platonic Ideal of incompetence,

myopia, and attitude on an

improbable collision course with

unearned cash and credibility.

Maybe we're charmed by his

toffish manner in drawing the

split between Content and

Technology as an online version

of the East Coast/West Coast hip-

hop wars ("Not just creepy but

provincial," he sniffs about

Seattle.) Maybe it's that, much

as we like ad hominem attacks on

one's moral, intellectual, and

fiscal superiors, we like a

whole book of them even more.

Maybe the combination of

accusations that Wolff embezzled

his employees' salaries and the

fact that he sees himself as the

Candide of the Web just proves

our long-held belief that stupid

people are even sneakier than

smart people. Maybe we're just

connoisseurs of bad business

plans, of which Wolff's NetGuide

Web site (an editor's

dream search engine that

appealed not just to sellers,

advertisers, or surfing soccer

moms, but to none of the above)

was certainly one of the worst -

a fact painfully obvious to most

everyone well before the effort



Most of all, though, our

adulation pivots on our

admiration for Wolff's grasp of

the laws of career journalism.

The book climaxes when Wolff

defiantly declares his true

calling to his lead investor:

"I'm a writer. If this company

goes down, I will continue to do

what I have always done, which

is write. Perhaps about you."

Apparently the author believes

this will make the reader stab a

fist in the air and declare,

"Yeah! You tell the bastard,

Michael!" But the real

fascination here is Wolff's

ability to do what journalists

do best - turn a dearth of

talent and a gift for failure

into a career advancement. Among

certain Internet commentators -

the ones who like to crack wise

beyond their Internet years -

Wolff's dour oeuvre offers a

pain-free perspective on the

"craziness" of the Internet

industry. Precisely the same

empty perspective, ironically,

that Wolff's own Net Business

once offered clueless executives

looking for "experts" who "get

the Internet." (Kurt Andersen,

who, like Wolff, has made a

second career of channeling

1995-era Suck, blurbs the book

as "the real deal.")



Wolff's real genius, in fact,

rests in demonstrating that it's

still possible not to get the

Internet. For all his

ass-swaddling elisions (he tells

you his company "ran out of

money" the way an 8-year-old

tells you the window "got

broke"), Wolff barely lets on

that he failed because he had a

monumentally sucky product, no

business plan, no real grasp of

finance, and a "character

issue." Yet somehow (and here's

where the hero factor comes in),

he's leveraged that failure into

a job punditeering about what a

crazy industry the Internet is.

In effect, he got scammed in a

game of three-card monte, then

appointed himself head of the

Casino Control Commission. "The

real job," Wolff admits early in

his book, "was just to keep the

cash coming while you shifted

with the paradigm." Whatever

lessons Wolff may have drawn

from his Internet misadventures,

he clearly hasn't lost his

shifty streak.


In the real world of business,

this combination of spite,

sneakiness, stupidity, cupidity,

and sucking up (the book is well

stained by Walter Isaacson's DNA

samples) would carry liabilities

- it takes a certain generosity

of spirit to run a company, for

instance. But journalism turns

all vices into virtues. In

interviews, Wolff responds to

the embezzlement claims by

noting that his

underachieving employees should

take their lumps and be grateful

for the experience. Last week in

The Red Herring, he made fun of

the business partners who are

mad that he squandered their

investments on his Tuscan

vacation. (Wolff's economic ethic

is roughly equal to that of a real

college freshman: "It's OK to

waste my dad's money 'cause

he's, like, just some big

business asshole.")



And by journalism's inevitable

law of increasing bile, Wolff's

stinker attitude has paid off.

It's odd that a guy who has such

contempt for the actual content

providers in his own company

should find his only real

métier as a content

provider himself; but where

content is concerned, contempt

is the whole point. We'd love to

have Wolff's catbird-seat column

in New York (a magazine careless

newsstand shoppers sometimes

even buy, in the mistaken belief

that it is The New Yorker),

where his duties seem to consist

of talking about himself and

pointing out that Rupert

Murdoch is a powerful guy. Hell,

we wouldn't even say no to his

inane column in the Industry

Standard (which careless

investors sometimes put money

into in the mistaken belief that

they're investing in toilet

industry giant American

Standard), where all he has to

do is steal ideas from other



But most important, Wolff has

that industry expert spot we've

been coveting for years. And

we'd be jealous of his success

in our chosen field, except that

we know he encompasses the

Whitmanesque multitudes of

journalistic success in ways we

never could. In a profession

where a second language and an

econ minor can put you at the

top of your field, a reporter

who is also a liar, a

narcissist, a blithering

incompetent, a self-pitying

Sally Anne, and a thief must be

some kind of quintuple threat.

No wonder Wolff's got such a

great future behind him.

courtesy of Bartel D'Arcy