John Gruber Analyzes Journal Sourcing on (Steve) Jobs

John Gruber of Daring Fireball has a smart analysis of the journalism behind the Journal’s big scoop this weekend that Steve Jobs had a liver transplant two months ago—something that had been kept from shareholders (disclosure: I’m a very minor one of them).

Gruber notes that the Journal doesn’t source its report, instead stating point blank that “Steve Jobs, who has been on medical leave from Apple Inc. since January to treat an undisclosed medical condition, received a liver transplant in Tennessee about two months ago.”

Here’s Gruber:

Blockbuster news with no sourcing whatsoever. To call that curious is an understatement. And, coming in the opening paragraph of a page one story, it could not be a careless omission.


I’m not very much interested in any journalistic problems of the attribution here. That may well be because I worked at the Journal for several years and know I can trust it. The paper just is not going to put something like that on the front page of the paper unless it’s been vetted and lawyered so well as to be gospel. That’s been proven out by the silence from Apple since the story broke this weekend.

Gruber does a nice job picking apart the Journal piece to figure out who the source is and guesses that it’s probably not Jobs himself. That’s a fair assumption since the WSJ reports that Jobs declined to comment via email. The paper has an almost ironclad rule that stories can’t mislead readers about sourcing, even to protect a source. Gruber points to a board member, which sounds about right to me.

He’s also smart to point out that the timing for this bad news for Apple is propitious, coming on the release of a new iPhone, making it all the more likely that it came from inside the company, rather than, say, someone at Jobs’s hospital. It also came late on a Friday, prime time for PR dumps of bad information.

The Journal story is good to try to answer questions about what the transplant means, especially since the company is obfuscating.

William Hawkins, a doctor specializing in pancreatic and gastrointestinal surgery at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., said that the type of slow-growing pancreatic tumor Mr. Jobs had will commonly metastasize in another organ during a patient’s lifetime, and that the organ is usually the liver. “All total, 75% of patients are going to have the disease spread over the course of their life,” said Dr. Hawkins, who has not treated Mr. Jobs.

And this is an excellent broadening graph that does the classic Journal illustration of what this story means in the grand scheme of things.

Getting a liver transplant to treat a metastasized neuroendocrine tumor is controversial because livers are scarce and the surgery’s efficacy as a cure hasn’t been proved, Dr. Hawkins added. He said that patients whose tumors have metastasized can live for as many as 10 years without any treatment so it is hard to determine how successful a transplant has been in curing the disease.

Let’s put it this way, somebody rich and powerful like Steve Jobs isn’t going to go wanting for a liver for a questionable procedure even though many folks who really need a new one will die waiting for one.

The key thing to take away here is that if this was indeed a leak from Apple, the Journal didn’t just play the access game. It took the information and reported it out for its readers.

Well done.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.