On the Media: Steve Jobs and Apple vs. a free press

As amply reported in recent days, Steve Jobs had verve, determination and a creative genius. Along with those admirable traits came a laser-like focus on control. Few felt the cold shoulder and steely elbows of the Apple chief like the media — particularly those who had the temerity to tell the story of Jobs and his company without his express permission.

The wave of coverage of Jobs’ death this week at 56 rightfully centered on the products he created and the way they enhanced people’s lives. That narrative won’t be easily shifted; nor should it be.

But the glowing elegies came courtesy of reporters who — after deadline and off the record — would tell stories about a company obsessed with secrecy to the point of paranoia. They remind us how Apple shut down a youthful fanboy blogger, punished a publisher that dared to print an unauthorized Jobs biography and repeatedly ran afoul of the most basic tenets of a free press.

Photos: Steve Jobs | 1955-2011

Conventional wisdom will vindicate Jobs’ media strategy. His products sold. His company grew to one of the biggest in the world. And reporters waited desperately for morsels about the slightest reconfiguration of the iPhone, iPod or MacBook. But because Jobs’ command and control paradigm worked at Apple doesn’t mean he was always right, or that his methods could be duplicated by lesser figures.


The tactics also created a perverse climate of breathless, under-informed speculation every time an Apple pod, pad or book was due for a launch or modification — which was essentially all the time. Addition of a data port on one device could draw oohs and ahhs in multiple stories..

“Not only did [Apple] introduce actually innovative products,” Dan Gillmor, a longtime Silicon Valley reporter, said via email, “but it had the uncanny ability to get normally skeptical journalists to sit up and beg like a bunch of pet beagles.”

One of the ironies of the digital communications age is that some of the greatest revolutionaries for transparency and human connectedness prefer to apply those principles to everyone else. (Google and Facebook are among the other tech giants that have made the Pentagon look pliant in comparison.) Apple “has taken stances that, in my opinion, are outright hostile to the practice of journalism,” said Gillmor, a former San Jose Mercury News journalist and founding director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship.

Reporters who covered Apple tell tales of being poked or prodded for straying out of line. One writer told me of being on a conference call in which analysts discussed earnings for Pixar, the animation studio he helped create. Jobs began to trash the reporter’s coverage, which turned out to be entirely accurate. She could only stew on the other end of the phone line because the call was arranged so the media could listen in but not ask questions.

Another reporter described trying, with futility, to get Jobs and Apple to comment for a story that described the origins of the iPod. After making sure there was no communication, Jobs sent a scathing email about the “many inaccuracies” in the piece. He proceeded to complain only about the degree of credit that should be given to one iPod designer.

Those are the kinds of quotidian (and survivable) slights journalists live with every day. More troubling was the way Jobs and his company identified perceived enemies and then targeted them with daunting obstacles and, in some cases, retaliation.

Apple went after a trio of websites that reported tips about the company and its unreleased products. It tried to force the small-fry bloggers to reveal their sources via the courts — a legal case that raised the question of whether new media were entitled to the same 1st Amendment protections as old. Fortunately, an appellate court understood the crucial role confidential figures play in reporting the news. It rejected Apple’s position and preserved reporters’ independence.

That decision did not resolve Apple’s pursuit of Nicholas Ciarelli, the teenage blogger who ran the Apple-loving ThinkSecret. Even as Apple went after him in court, Ciarelli continued to publish excited speculation about upcoming Apple products like the Mac Mini and iPod Shuffle MP3 player. That’s the kind of buzz most companies would kill for. Instead, Apple wanted to kill the blog. It thought any leaks, even favorable ones, diluted the punch of its highly choreographed product launches with Jobs, in his iconic jeans and mock turtleneck outfit, as the star.

The case was resolved only when Ciarelli, by then a Harvard student and editor on the campus newspaper, agreed to shut down ThinkSecret. The settlement did not give the company what it really wanted — the names of those who had leaked to Ciarelli. But Apple reportedly paid a settlement to the young writer, and he agreed to cease and desist.

The secrecy imperative applied not only to Apple but also its founder. John Wiley & Sons learned that lesson quite viscerally in 2005. That’s when the publisher dared to print an unauthorized — but not overly harsh — biography of Jobs. Apple struck back by removing all of the firm’s books from Apple retail stores. That meant blackballing even Apple-friendly books and how-to guides — something like cutting off your mouse to spite your motherboard.

Last year, the company reacted in another fury in the case of the iPhone-In-A-Bar. The trouble started when an Apple engineer left an iPhone prototype in a Silicon Valley beer garden. The tech website Gizmodo conceded that it paid the finder of the phone $5,000, then dismantled the device and wrote a story reporting on what it found.

Paying a middleman for someone else’s missing property might cause some disquiet. But even more troubling should be the ease with which Apple got a law enforcement task force to raid the Gizmodo writer’s home. The writer, Jason Chen, had his computers, cameras and hard drives seized.

The law, as laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court, makes clear this should be seen as an intrusion on territory even more sacrosanct than, yes, Apple’s Cupertino-campus — a journalist’s work space. “A stranger’s illegal conduct does not suffice to remove the First Amendment shield from speech about a matter of public concern,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in a 2001 case.

Jobs’ approach to the media could work only because he had the goods to back it up. Apple products truly changed the way people gathered information, listened to music and even perceived the world. The public always wanted to know what would be next. The full-dress pitching of each new product and modification became part of the Apple mystique. Many in the media felt compelled to play along. They felt there was no other way.

Photos: Steve Jobs | 1955-2011

Steve Jobs appreciated many things, big and small. But a vigorous, unbridled media was not one of them.

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