When publishing companies are bought and sold like meat-packing plants, one would expect little passion to attend the business—especially at a $42-million-a-year firm that publishes personal-computer magazines. But David Bunnell, 40, the controversial creative force behind PCW Communications, has a passion for reshaping the world—something he believes personal computers have the power to do.
Back in the '60s, Bunnell was head of the Students for a Democratic Society chapter at the University of Nebraska and organized a 4,000-person march against racial discrimination. After college, he felt he should do some service for his country, since his low draft status had gotten him out of going to Vietnam. So Bunnell taught school in the Chicago ghetto, a few blocks from where Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were shot to death.
His activism later put him on the firing line himself. "I was on the Pine Ridge during Wounded Knee," bringing food to the Indians who occupied the town and demanded that the government honor an 1868 treaty. American Indian Movement leader Russell Means, says Bunnell, "saved me from being shot" by an Indian who accused him of being an FBI agent. It later turned out, Bunnell says, that the Indian who threatened him was himself working for the FBI.
"Later I went to the funeral of Frank Clearwater, the first Indian killed at Wounded Knee. Someone took a shot at me and shot out the window of my car." Concerned about his wife and two small children, he moved from South Dakota to Albuquerque. (He has since gotten divorced and is now married to Jacqueline Poitier, PCW's vice-president and director of art and design).
Turned down for a job at a newspaper there (though he'd worked in high school for the daily paper his father edited in Alliance, Nebraska), Bunnell found work writing manuals for MITS, the maker of the first personal computer. In 1976, he left MITS to start his first computer magazine, Personal Computing. After it was sold, Bunnell founded PC Magazine to reach owners of the new IBM personal computer.
Against Bunnell's wishes, his financial backer sold the magazine out from under him to giant publisher Ziff-Davis. "I came to work Monday morning in November '82, and people from Ziff-Davis were in there and told me, 'We own you.'"
By Friday of that same week, Bunnell had a backer for a new magazine, PC World. By the following Monday, he'd sold over 100 pages of advertising for what became the largest first issue of any magazine. And 48 of his 52 former employees followed him to PC World.
Bunnell's genius, colleagues and competitors say, is seeing where the personal-computer industry is going and how it will affect society. "A lot of the things we thought we could accomplish in the '60s with politics—distributing power—we found in the '70s and '80s we could do with computers," says Bunnell.
Political topics often turn up in Bunnell's editorials. He recently criticized "Star Wars" for wastefully diverting American technical expertise. And he has blasted protectionist measures for doubling the price of computer chips and hindering promising technologies that depend on them.
"We may see a real stifling of innovation," he warns. "You see the government getting involved where it shouldn't be, with lip service to the open market. There's an element of racism in it, too—refighting World War II. We went into Japan after World War II and said 'You should have capitalism,' and they did it so well that now we're going to punish them."
These issues didn't arouse much reader comment, but an editorial Bunnell ran last November did—more than 4,000 letters poured into PC World's offices, a record number.
In the editorial, Bunnell replied to a letter from the governor of Georgia, inviting him to tour Atlanta high-tech companies, with a strong criticism of a rotten part of the Peach State. Georgia's sodomy law, which the U.S. Supreme Court had recently upheld, wrote Bunnell, conflicted "with the very vision that compelled the growth of personal computers…a progressive, laissez-faire capitalist society." He called on readers to campaign for the law's repeal.
"What I wrote about," he says, "is the right to privacy, a cornerstone of our society. While a lot of people agreed, most people didn't get it."
The ignorance of many responses shocked Bunnell. Many argued that the Constitution is based on the Bible, which condemns sodomy, so the Georgia law is okay. Others were vituperative. "People would rip my picture out of the magazine and write 'faggot' across it and mail it in," he says. And a couple of advertisers—companies founded by born-again Christians—pulled their ads, though one later came back.
Bunnell is undeterred. "People who care about technology need to be active in guiding its applications. Personal computers can be very liberating, but they could probably be used to enforce a police state also," he says. "I hope that in some ways I make a difference."
John Dentinger is a free-lance writer in Los Angeles.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Passionate Publisher".