Apple’s Secrecy

This whole Jobs liver transplant story really hits the sweet spot for two of my obsessions: Apple (duh) and journalism. It’s the journalism angle that I find the most intriguing. The Wall Street Journal’s story Friday night was a huge scoop for them, and I noted in my analysis of it that The New York Times, when they finally ran their first story with the news one day later, clearly could not find a source of their own, attributing the information only to the Journal’s original report. If you know anything at all about the culture of premier news organizations like the Journal and Times, you know how that hurt the Times.

Today the Times has a follow-up by Brad Stone and Ashlee Vance, but rather than making the story about Jobs, it’s ostensibly about Apple’s company-wide “obsession with secrecy”. Four paragraphs down, though, comes this:

But even by Apple’s standards, its handling of news about the health of its chief executive and co-founder, Steven P. Jobs, who has battled pancreatic cancer and recently had a liver transplant while on a leave of absence, is unparalleled.

Mr. Jobs received the liver transplant about two months ago, according to people briefed on the matter by current and former board members. Despite intense interest in Mr. Jobs’s condition among the news media and investors, Apple representatives have declined to address the matter, reciting with maddening discipline only that Mr. Jobs is due back at the company by the end of June.

Mr. Jobs was actually at work on Apple’s sprawling corporate campus on Monday, according to a person who saw him there. Company representatives would not say whether he had returned permanently.

So, note that the Times still does not have a first-hand source for the news regarding Jobs’s purported liver transplant. Read the sourcing carefully: according to people briefed on the matter by current and former board members. That’s second-hand information — “people” who were told about it by board members who know about it. (I wonder who the former board member(s) could be? Apple hasn’t had much turnover on the board in recent years. And why would a former board member know about Jobs’s current health status? Curious.)

I also don’t see how Apple’s handling of news related to Jobs’s health is “unparalleled”. They’re no more secretive about his health now than they have ever been. If anything, the low point was a year ago, when Apple PR stated that Jobs’s gauntness was the result of complications from “a common bug”.

And then this:

Even senior officials at Apple fear crossing Mr. Jobs. One official, who is normally more open, when asked for a deep-background briefing about Mr. Jobs’s health after the news of the transplant had become public, replied: “Just can’t do it. Too sensitive.”

Translated into plain English, this is the Times’s acknowledgement that they couldn’t get anyone to talk to them about Jobs, even on “deep background”, which term Wikipedia describes thusly:

“Deep background” This term is used in the U.S., though not consistently. Most journalists would understand “deep background” to mean that the information may not be included in the article but is used by the journalist to enhance his or her view of the subject matter, or to act as a guide to other leads or sources. Most deep background information is confirmed elsewhere before being reported.

In other words, no one at Apple would give reporters from the Times jack shit regarding Jobs’s health. And yet the Times story seems to portray this unwillingness on the part of top Apple executives to betray Jobs’s trust and privacy as something other than admirable.

The rest of the article details specific examples of Apple’s policies for guarding the details of products in development; the implication is that Apple is a weird and creepy place because they try to keep a lid on secrets.

Here’s one example:

Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president for marketing, has held internal meetings about new products and provided incorrect information about a product’s price or features, according to a former employee who signed an agreement not to discuss internal matters. Apple then tries to track down the source of news reports that include the incorrect details.

I’m not disputing that Schiller and Apple do this. But, as someone who has published one or two original nuggets of information regarding upcoming Apple products, I can say that I’ve never seen evidence of it. I’ve never received information from an Apple employee that turned out to be false.1

I can’t help but feel that this story is a rather transparent lashing out on the part of the Times. They couldn’t get any original information regarding the story they really want — Jobs’s liver transplant — and so like a child throwing a tantrum when it doesn’t get its way, they wrote a story about how there’s something wrong with Apple because its employees keep their mouths shut.

Apple’s decision to severely limit communication with the news media, shareholders and the public is at odds with the approach taken by many other companies, which are embracing online outlets like blogs and Twitter and generally trying to be more open with shareholders and more responsive to customers.

So, yes, undeniably, Apple does not communicate via weblogs. I too think they should. I like Google’s approach to official blogging — they don’t write about upcoming products and services, but they do write about the new things they release, offering insight and tips into how and why to use them. (Google is pretty damn secretive about things like upcoming products and the details of its operation infrastructure.)

But: what’s the argument for how Apple has suffered for its secrecy? Yes, Apple is far more secretive than most companies, but they’re also far more successful. Measured by profit and revenue and growth, wouldn’t it make more sense to argue that most companies should act more like Apple, rather than the other way around?

  1. False information I’ve received tends to come from third parties; for example, several iPhone case manufacturers were convinced that Apple was going to announce a smaller “iPhone Mini” at WWDC this month. ↩︎