Business

The definition of an academic question

On Saturday we looked at some strikingly egregious headlines, but it’s a whole new week and there’s nothing egregious about the headline to this piece by James B. Stewart in the New York Times:

“Steve Jobs, a Genius at Pushing Boundaries”

Nope, nothing wrong there at all.

Unfortunately, it’s only because they pushed the crazy part into the lede.

If Steve Jobs were alive today, should he be in jail?

Oh, way to skirt Betteridge’s Law on a technicality, James.

That’s the provocative question being debated in antitrust circles in the wake of revelations that Mr. Jobs, the co-founder of Apple who’s deeply revered in Silicon Valley, was the driving force in a conspiracy to prevent competitors from poaching employees.

“DO DEAD MEN BELONG IN JAIL?!” Keep asking the important questions, academics. Note also that almost all the quotes from “antitrust circles” come from one guy.

The anti-poaching pact was hardly Mr. Jobs’s only post-mortem brush with the law. His behavior was at the center of an ebook price-fixing conspiracy with major publishers. After a lengthy trial, a federal judge ruled last summer that “Apple played a central role in facilitating and executing that conspiracy.”

Price-fixing of books is apparently a huge concern for the Justice Department. Having a monopoly on book sales is not.

Mr. Jobs also figured prominently in the options backdating scandal that rocked Silicon Valley eight years ago.

The horny one was fairly critical of Apple on this issue, but it was practically standard industry practice at the time. The Valley’s reaction was “Oh, you’re really going to enforce that? We just assumed, uh … hang on a second …” [sound of papers shuffling, options being rescinded] “You still there? Yeah, it’s all cleared up now. Sorry about that.”

Five executives of other companies went to prison for backdating options, but Mr. Jobs was never charged.

Probably because Apple’s situation wasn’t clearly as purposeful, repeated, or willfully covered up as those other ones. But way to tar the guy with a false equivalence.

Despite the strict language of the Sherman Act, the Justice Department tends to file criminal antitrust charges only in the most egregious cases, and by that standard, Mr. Jobs would probably never have been charged.

Ah! So, your question in the lede was just a bunch of crap, then. Great. Thanks for that.

The New York Times, ladies and gentleman.

[slow, sarcastic clapping]

Still, Mr. Jobs’s conduct is a reminder that the difference between genius and potentially criminal behavior can be a fine line.

The guy did get his start stealing long-distance calls from AT&T.

Mr. Jobs “always believed that the rules that applied to ordinary people didn’t apply to him,” Walter Isaacson, author of the best-selling biography “Steve Jobs,” told me this week.

False. Ugh, God, is there anything Isaacson can’t get wrong about Jobs?

Jobs did not believe in letting rules constrain you. That’s different than believing there’s one set of rules for the little people and another set for him. And that’s a pretty common trait among entrepreneurs. Just ask the Albuquerque Police department about Bill Gates.

But even as Mr. Jobs was doing his best to snuff out competition, he publicly reveled in it, Mr. Isaacson said. “The paradox is, Steve Jobs was totally energized by competition.”

That’s not a paradox! What is a paradox is the usually very astute Steve Jobs picking you as his biographer.

So, yes, Apple and Steve Jobs have not always been puppies and kittens. Sometimes they have bent, evaded, flouted, and/or pantsed the rules. Those instances are not admirable, they are not pleasant, and they should not be swept under the rug. They are also not even close to the worst sort of thing that goes on in corporate America. But it’s great to know the New York Times is on it.

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