For the past six months Steve Jobs has been looking terribly ill. But only this week did Apple finally acknowledge that Jobs isn't doing well, when the company announced that Jobs would take a leave for six months. Some suggest the company has misled investors; shareholder lawsuits seem likely. But how did the company manage to carry on this charade for so long? The sad fact is they had help from the media.
The worst thing about the coverage of the Steve Jobs health fiasco at Apple is not only that much of the media failed to pursue the story. A lot of us feel uneasy about prying into someone's health. We'd just rather not go there. But in this case the media went beyond just ignoring the story and actually helped Apple tamp down the story, which kept bubbling up, usually on blogs.
On Wednesday night I went on CNBC and was obnoxious enough to point out, on the air, that CNBC itself had been put into the latter camp by a Silicon Valley bureau chief who had appointed himself the official defender of Steve Jobs and Apple. Worse yet, in December, when one blog in the Valley reported that Jobs had canceled his annual Macworld keynote because "Steve's health is rapidly declining," this reporter went out of his way to attack that outlet and refute its report, both on air and in print. The CNBC guy claimed he had sources deep inside Apple who were telling him that Jobs was healthy. "Apple's Jobs is (Still) Fine," was his headline on the CNBC Web site.
Turns out, however, that the blog—a gadget site called Gizmodo—was right, and the CNBC guy was wrong. When I was on air, I pointed this out, and suggested the CNBC reporter should apologize to Gizmodo, and also to his viewers for having misled them. For this I've now become persona non grata at CNBC. From what I was told after the show, it's highly unlikely that I'll ever be invited back. (For what it's worth, after the show I apologized to Goldman and others at CNBC for being so rude. And the next day, a CNBC spokesman said that I have not been "banned" from the network.)
The larger takeaway is what this episode says about how the media covers Apple. It's one thing for PR flacks to tell lies. That is, after all, what they get paid to do. But it's another thing for the media to join in on the action.
The fact is, in the eyes of the media, Apple is the corporate equivalent of Barack Obama—a company that can do no wrong. Even in Silicon Valley, where much of the press corps are pretty much glorified cheerleaders (think of all those slobbering cover stories about the Google guys) Apple's kid-gloves treatment stands out. Reporters don't just overlook Apple's faults; they'll actually apologize for them, or rationalize them away. Ever seen reporters clapping and cheering at a press conference? Happens all the time at Apple events.
Jobs is famous for what Apple watchers call his "reality distortion field"—that is, his ability to convince people that the world is one way when it's really another. The last six months have been the most outrageous example of the reality distortion field I've ever seen. Anyone with half a brain and pair of eyes could look at Steve Jobs last June and know that this was not a healthy 53-year-old man. Yet for months Apple fanboys and Apple's friends in the media have bent themselves into pretzels in search of ways to argue that he's in fine health.
Now Apple finally has copped to the truth. Jobs is taking a leave of absence related to his health. This news came only nine days after Jobs put out a ridiculous open letter claiming he has a "hormone imbalance" that would be easily treated.
One of the CNBC talking heads asked me whether this rather abrupt about-face will hurt Apple's credibility. I pointed out that to me and some of my peers, Apple has never had very much credibility. This is a company whose idea of "corporate communications" mostly involves picking up the phone and saying "No comment." Or sometimes they'll pick up the phone and just repeat the same meaningless sentence, over and over again, no matter what question you ask them. I'm not kidding. They really do that. And of course a lot of the time they just don't return phone calls at all.
Apple's entire corporate culture is built on secrecy, and I mean crazy, CIA-style secrecy, where different teams of engineers who are working on the same project aren't allowed to know what the other teams are doing. Apple is also pretty good at spreading disinformation and freezing out people they don't like. Imagine what it might be like if the Church of Scientology went into the consumer electronics business, and you'd have a pretty good picture of how Apple operates.
But some of my colleagues in the media have made a Faustian bargain with Apple. In exchange for super-special access to Jobs, they tacitly agree not to criticize the company or even to say things it doesn't like. It's one of those deals that seems great at first—"Hey, I just got an exclusive with Steve Jobs!"—but eventually it turns out to be rotten. For one thing, the access isn't worth much, since all you get is lame, scripted, well-rehearsed comments. Essentially you get turned into an extension of Apple's PR operation. And while it's nice to get a peek behind the curtain, and it's exciting to feel like you've been allowed into the "cool kids club," the truth is that the cool kids who are pretending to be your friends are actually just using you to spread whatever disinformation they happen to need spread that week. You are, to them, nothing more than a useful idiot.
And when the you-know-what hits the fan, as it eventually must—when, say, Apple finally admits the truth about Steve Jobs being sick, a truth that was obvious and evident for months—all those wonderful "sources" and PR pals just slip away into no-comment land, leaving their sycophantic media dupes to take the fall for Apple's dissembling.
That's what happened to the poor guy at CNBC. Sure, he got his share of "exclusive" 10-minute spots with Steve Jobs. You can find them on YouTube. They look like training videos for a correspondence course on bootlicking. Now, of course, the CNBC guy says he's outraged. He sputters about how Apple has been irresponsible and "deplorable." His pals at Apple won't care. They're already moving on to the next useful idiot. Among the Silicon Valley press corps there is no shortage of them.