Putting the Sneer Before the Scoop: Joe Nocera and Steve Jobs

Steve JobsEver since Steve Jobs addressed the adoring crowds at this year's Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, the press, Apple fans - and most especially, Apple investors - have been concerned over the state of his health.  The reasons are obvious: Five years ago, Jobs announced that he had been diagnosed, and cured, of a rare and happily less pernicious form of pancreatic cancer (the more common variety is almost never discovered before it has become incurable).  And, when Jobs took the stage this June, he was far thinner and more haggard than he had ever looked before.

Since then, although rumors have swirled, Apple has refused to state whether or not Jobs has had a recurrence of his cancer - or disclose any meaningful details at all.  Even on calls with securities analysts, Apple's response has only been that "Steve's health is a private matter."

Thus you might think that if you were a journalist, and you got a call from Steve Jobs yourself, giving you, and you only, the private scoop on the status of his health, you might feel like a pretty lucky guy, and take that news to the public within whatever constraints you had agreed to with the Apple CEO.  Or would you write a different story entirely, and bury that news in the penultimate paragraph of a long story, and write at length instead about how stockholders were entitled to know the news that you had just buried? 

With that lead in, you can guess which way New York Times business page columnist Joe Nocera called the coin toss.  So here's the good news about Steve Jobs (up front), and the bad news about a Journalistic decision. 

As promised, here’s the good news.  According to Nocera’s article:

Because the conversation was off the record, I cannot disclose what Mr. Jobs told me. Suffice it to say that I didn’t hear anything that contradicted the reporting that John Markoff and I did this week. While his health problems amounted to a good deal more than “a common bug,” they weren’t life-threatening and he doesn’t have a recurrence of cancer. After he hung up the phone, it occurred to me that I had just been handed, by Mr. Jobs himself, the very information he was refusing to share with the shareholders who have entrusted him with their money.

The story by Markoff that Nocera alludes to reported (based on conversations with anonymous sources) that Jobs had recently undergone some sort of surgery that was followed by “digestive difficulties” resulting in weight loss.  Nocera’s legitimate question is whether Apple was deceiving its shareholders about a matter of legitimate concern when it attributed Jobs’ weight loss to a “common bug,” given the enormous identification of Jobs’s unique skills with the fortunes of his company.

All well and good up to that point.  But now let’s look at Nocera’s decisions in setting up his story, which bore a title that had nothing to do with the important news – to Apple shareholders! – about Steve Jobs’s health.  That title was this:



Apple’s Culture of Secrecy

Huh?  Isn’t that a bit like breaking the news that Pearl Harbor had been attacked with a story title about military preparedness? 

In fact, Nocera uses the first 1600 words or so to recounting the history of Jobs’s health problems, the very limited details that Apple has released over the years on that topic, and Apple’s ongoing strategy of secrecy regarding new products (which Nocera admits represents a shrewd marketing tactic).  And he describes how Steve Dowling, from Apple’s PR department, had refused to comment as well, when Nocera contacted him directly on the topic following the analysts’ call. 

Nocera spends the bulk of the article expanding on the question of whether the health of a CEO is “material” under the securities laws, and therefore a subject upon which disclosure may be mandated by law.  And he quotes experts that say, in effect, that if a CEO’s health prognosis is not such that it will have an adverse impact on the fortunes of his or her company that there may be nothing required to disclose at all.  He never pauses to note, however, that he has learned that perhaps no disclosure by Apple may be necessary at all.  Nor does he note that the greatest risk for a shareholder suit arises on the slippery disclosure slope between “no comment” and full disclosure of all details.  Assume, for the sake of argument, that as a result of Steve’s most recent surgery he must wear a colostomy bag for the rest of his life.  Is that a press briefing you’d like to authorize, if you were Steve? 

Only after all of this does Nocera finally switch gears from commentary to the news at hand.  Here’s the segue, which may give a clue to how his inverted story structure decision just might have come about:

On Thursday afternoon, several hours after I’d gotten my final “Steve’s health is a private matter” — and much to my amazement — Mr. Jobs called me. “This is Steve Jobs,” he began. “You think I’m an arrogant [expletive] who thinks he’s above the law, and I think you’re a slime bucket who gets most of his facts wrong.” After that rather arresting opening, he went on to say that he would give me some details about his recent health problems, but only if I would agree to keep them off the record. I tried to argue him out of it, but he said he wouldn’t talk if I insisted on an on-the-record conversation. So I agreed.

I can’t help wondering whether Steve Jobs’s opinion of Nocera’s judgment might be a touch closer to reality than Nocera’s of Jobs, given the editorial decisions that the columnist made in setting up his article.  Did Nocera need to save the good news until the end, after all?  Of course, he knew that he had a huge scoop.  And of course he knew that, this being a story in the Times, that the news would be instantly discovered and would spread rapidly, with many links back to his own column.  But if he had put the good news first, how many people following those links would bother to read past the health news to also consider his analysis of the securities disclosure point that he was more interested in developing?

All’s fair in love, war, and newspaper columns, of course, and the cat and mouse game between public figures and the press must date back at least to the days of Gutenburg.  But I think that Nocera’s decisions in setting up this piece suggest that he may have allowed the dynamics of his call with Jobs to affect his judgment as a journalist.

Admittedly it is true that Steve Jobs (and Apple) would certainly provide a service to Apple stockholders if they were to provide some public reassurance on the state of his health.  But surely these same shareholders have already benefited hugely from Jobs’s performance in the corner office.  There seems to me to be something unseemly and even archaicly retro about this insistence or performing a public reading of a CEO’s entrails as an augury of the future value of his company’s stock.  Perhaps even that should be demanded – wouldn’t it be more effective disclosure to post a CATSCAN of Jobs’s midsection on line, so that medical experts could offer their own evaluations of his health during the next fiscal quarter?

I hope not.  But after reading Nocera’s column, I’m less sure we might not come to that.  Unfortunately, like a CEO whose privacy and health are at stake, those that tap out words for a living can sometimes let their egos get ahead of their Jobs.

Updated:  I just stumbled upon a very short post at Joe Nocera’s online blog at NYTimes.com, where you can read (and contribute to) a discussion about his article.  That discussion can be found here.  It looks like Nocera delivered his article to the Times yesterday, posted his brief blog note, and then went on vacation until August 4.  When he gets back, he’ll find that those that have left comments are overwhelmingly unhappy with his column.


(This is first entry in a new topic area I’m starting, using the traditional category title of “On the Media.”)




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