The Press and Steve Jobs

The controversy over Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ health is all over the press, and with it, questions about how the media have handled.

Brian X. Chen posted a piece at Wednesday with a headline “Steve Jobs Probably Won’t Come Back to Apple”. Beyond the poorly supported headline, the piece is problematic in choosing to quote a tech analyst on Jobs’ health (Disclosure: I own Apple shares):

“My bet is he’s not coming back,” said Roger Kay, an Endpoint Technologies analyst. “Despite all the protestations, I think he has cancer. They talk about digestive this and digestive that, but … forget all the buzz you’re hearing. Just look at the photos.”

All right, Kay thinks he has cancer. Is that worth quoting? I assume this tech analyst doesn’t moonlight as an oncologist. This is reminiscent of Bill Frist’s infamous misdiagnosis of Terry Schiavo via video from the House floor—but at least Frist was a doctor.

I’m sure the analyst quoted in the next paragraph isn’t an oncologist either, and the imprecision of the language here is questionable:

ThinkPanmure analyst Vijay Rakesh said it’s been obvious for some time that Jobs’ health condition is critical.

“What he’s indicating is it needs more urgent attention,” Rakesh said.

“Critical” is a medical term for a patient’s condition and it’s just wrong here. Something has clearly been up with Jobs for several months, but during that time he’s done keynotes, run the company, etc. He hasn’t been in a hospital bed near death.

On the other hand, the press is right to come down hard on Apple for apparently misleading reporters and shareholders about Jobs’ health. Joe Nocera, who had a run-in with Jobs last summer when the Apple CEO called him a “slime bucket” and told him off the record the ailment he had (which Jobs said wasn’t cancer), today writes that Apple’s credibility is just about gone.

I knew at the time I was being spun — he’s Steve Jobs, after all — but I didn’t think I was being lied to. Now, in the wake of this latest news, I’m not sure what to think. It is certainly possible that Mr. Jobs had the condition he described to me last summer. It is also possible that, more recently, he discovered he had a hormone imbalance. And that a week later, he certainly could have returned to the doctor and learned that his problem was bigger and more serious than that. I’ve talked to enough doctors who have dealt with pancreatic cancer to know that the operation Mr. Jobs underwent is life-altering. Simple medical problems can have debilitating effects on someone who has had his operation.

But at this point, Mr. Jobs has very little credibility when it comes to his own health. For years, he hid the fact that he had been treated for pancreatic cancer — and that Tim Cook, who is now going to run Apple while he is on leave, ran it then too. Although Mr. Jobs disagrees with me on this, that strikes me as a “material fact,” at least as the Securities and Exchange Commission defines the term. And his recent health revelations — such as they are — have only further impaired his credibility.

I think the press, including Joe Nocera’s original column in which he made clear he questioned what Apple was saying, handled this difficult story okay for the most part. If you read John Markoff’s piece, for instance, in the Times last July as the tech world was abuzz about Jobs’ gaunt appearance at an Apple presentation, it now looks like Markoff was spun. But what was the reporter supposed to do? Get Jobs’ doctor to go off the record? Charm his secretary into copying his charts? Report speculative innuendo like many of the big tech blogs did? And, of course, it’s possible that the CEO’s condition has truly gotten worse since Markoff’s anonymous sources assured him that everything was okay.

But there is one reporter who comes off looking pretty bad in this: CNBC’s Jim Goldman, who for weeks has been hawking Apple’s company line for weeks that Jobs is not sick. He got smacked around by Newsweek’s Dan Lyons, aka the former “Fake Steve Jobs” blogger, on his own network the other day, something the Guardian says got Lyons banned from CNBC.

Here’s the meat of what Lyons said on the air:

There’s two kinds of reporters that cover Apple, the kind who realize they’re getting snowed and getting bullied and getting blocked out and realize that a lot of what they’re being told is not true, and the other kind, who suck up in order to get access, and end up getting played and punked like your Valley bureau chief [Jim Goldman] has been played and punked by Apple.”

Sure, Lyons is being a jerk, but it’s hard to disagree with him here. He notes that CNBC’s former Silicon Valley bureau chief is now Apple’s head of PR, and it appears that Goldman has relied too much on his insider sources to the point of being blinded by the obvious: Jobs, the most important CEO in the world, was a sick man, his company was misleading its shareholders, and Goldman was helping them do it by categorically reporting that Jobs was fine.

Sometimes you trust your sources, and sometimes you get burned.

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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.