A new reality distortion field

What is it about Steve Jobs that makes otherwise sensible journalists completely lose their marbles? This week’s coverage of Steve Jobs’ health woes has hit some surprising new lows in journalistic IQ.

The latest example is a story on Newser.com by media reporter Michael Wolff, headlined Apple Dies. Its premise: “the logical answer to what happens at Apple without Jobs is that it dies. What you have, demonstrably, is a company without any managerial wherewithal beyond Jobs.”

What is demonstrable is that Michael Wolff doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He doesn’t seem to know who Tim Cook is. He hasn’t, apparently, dialed in to any of Apple’s earnings announcements over the past couple of years, at which Steve Jobs—when he appeared at all—generously shared the stage with Cook and other executives. He doesn’t seem to know how to read an annual report. Maybe he should read up on these summarized profiles of six accomplished Apple executives, all of whom possess managerial wherewithal and none of whom answer to the name “Steve.”

But that’s only the most recent in a week’s worth of frothing. In all that froth, a few themes have emerged.

For example, there’s the whole medical-diagnosis-at-a-distance thing. One of the worst examples (if only because the source is otherwise so reputable) was this Bloomberg story from Thursday (updated six times at last count), in which real doctors—who really should know better—speculate about what kinds of medical procedures Jobs might be facing. You’d think they’d add a clause to the Hippocratic Oath—“First, do no diagnoses of patients you’ve never seen.”

(And Bloomberg's coverage didn't stop there: "Apple’s Jobs Said to Be Considering Liver Transplant," said the headline Friday. "According to people who are monitoring his illness," said the first paragraph's citation of sources. "Why don’t you guys leave me alone?" Jobs said to Bloomberg, presumably during an angry phone call to complain about Thursday's story.)

In his wildly speculative story, Steve Jobs Probably Won’t Come Back to Apple — originally headlined simply "Steve Jobs Won't Come Back to Apple" (and yes, it's a bad sign when these stories keep getting new revisions, new bylines, and new headlines) — Wired’s Brian Chen quotes Dr. Alan Astrow, Director of Hematology and Oncology at the Maimonides Cancer Center, as saying “Jobs’ increasingly gaunt figure between public appearances in the past year is a possible sign of active cancer.” Yes, it’s possible that it’s active cancer. It’s also possible that, as Jobs has said, it’s a hormonal imbalance. Or it’s a normal consequence of treatment for pancreatic cancer. Or it’s that wacky new macrobiotic diet his wife put him on. All kinds of things are possible.

It’s even worse when the armchair diagnosers are complete amateurs. Chen also quotes analyst Roger Kay: “Despite all the protestations, I think he has cancer. They talk about digestive this and digestive that, but…just look at the photos.” Yes, although Roger Kay is not a medical professional, he does have the special ability to diagnose someone by looking at a photograph.

(Disclosure: Brian used to work here at Macworld. And I’m normally a fan of his work at Wired.)

Then there’s this notion that Steve Jobs has no right to privacy. For a prime example, see Henry Blodget’s recent column column on Silicon Alley Insider. Forget the dubious assumption that company executives should be required to disclose private health matters. The thing that bugs me here is the notion that somehow Apple has to play by different rules than any other company because Jobs is a “celebrity.”

But my vote for most completely whacked-out Jobs coverage of the week is a spectacular combination of apology, defiance, and primal-scream therapy from Gizmodo’s Brian Lam.

Gizmodo helped kick off this most recent round of Jobs frothing with a story in December, in which Jesus Diaz wrote, “According to a previously reliable source, Apple misrepresented the reasons behind Macworld and Jobs’ keynote cancellation. Allegedly, the real cause is his rapidly declining health. In fact, it may be even worse than we imagined.”

“Previously reliable source,” “allegedly,” “may be even worse than we imagined”—Diaz is no Woodward and Bernstein, but he turned out to be, if not exactly right, then not exactly wrong either. The story got lots of attention, and apparently caused Apple stock to drop.

That’s the reporting Lam addresses in his blog post. He’s, um, conflicted about it:

Publishing rumors about Steve Jobs’ health is one of the most distasteful things I’ve done in a long time…Professionally, I think we did what we were supposed to do… I am proud of the work I did with Jesús Diaz on this series… And over the last two weeks, I’ve hated my job and sometimes, myself, too.

I’d like to think that Lam speaks for all the Wollfs, Bloombergs, and Blodgets of the world, that they’re all at least a little ashamed of what they’ve done this week. As the redoubtable John Gruber pointed out, “Here’s a hint: When you’re actually proud of your work, rather than just telling yourself you’re proud of it, you sleep well at night.”

Dan Miller is an Executive Editor at Macworld.

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