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Apple Handled Jobs' Health Disclosures With Dignity And Class

Over the past day, since Apple revealed that Steve Jobs is stepping aside for five months to manage his health problems, I've been impressed by the way that Apple and Jobs have handled disclosures about his condition. They've stumbled a couple of times over the past half-year or so, since the issue first emerged. They haven't always been as forthcoming as perhaps they should be. But, still, overall, they've visibly been trying to do the right thing, motivated by a desire to balance personal righ
Over the past day, since Apple revealed that Steve Jobs is stepping aside for five months to manage his health problems, I've been impressed by the way that Apple and Jobs have handled disclosures about his condition. They've stumbled a couple of times over the past half-year or so, since the issue first emerged. They haven't always been as forthcoming as perhaps they should be. But, still, overall, they've visibly been trying to do the right thing, motivated by a desire to balance personal rights to privacy with the public good. They take their responsibility to investors and the public seriously.Apple and Jobs are responsible for tens of billions of dollars of investors' money -- other people's money. Recent events demonstrate that they manage those responsibilities wisely, if not always perfectly. That's refreshing news, in recent months, when we've seen headline after headline about businesspeople and politicians who spit on the trust the public and investors placed in them.

Not everyone will agree about Apple's and Jobs' behavior. Apple is likely to face shareholder lawsuits from investors who will claim that Apple mishandled reporting of Jobs' health. Investors will sue if they feel misled or cheated (or, more cynically, if they see an opportunity to make a quick buck off Jobs' suffering). However, the lawsuits will break new legal ground -- the law is unclear on corporate requirements for disclosing health information about its top executives, according to reports.

AppleInsider writes:


This public debate has been ongoing for quite some time, ever since it was revealed that Jobs hid his battle with cancer for nine full months before sharing such [information] with shareholders.  He recovered rapidly from the near-death experience and returned to work full-time only a few months later.  Since then, he's faced a balancing act between competing forces when it comes to his health.  On one hand, he's entitled to his privacy just like anyone else.  On the other, he's seen as an invaluable and irreplaceable asset to Apple -- one who carries a tremendous influence on the price of the company's shares, which are owned by the general public.

After appearing overly gaunt at this year's annual Apple developers conference, stories about Jobs' health and the resulting photographs threatened to overshadow the actual product announcements he made during the event. Many believe the attention was justified. A report from last June suggested Jobs may be worth more to Apple than any other chief executive in the world, adding that the company's market cap could enter into a $20 billion free-fall should he be abruptly forced to abandon his leadership position.

Apple's market cap dropped $6 billion soon after Jobs announced his leave of absence Wednesday.

But a case against Apple will be tough to prove, requiring a "smoking gun," such as a note from a doctor that contradicts Apple's public reports, to overcome Apple's likely defense that Jobs' medical condition was constantly changing, according to one attorney quoted by Reuters.

So did Apple and Jobs deceive the public on his medical condition? I don't have any inside information on this, just the same blogs, articles, and Apple public statements that are accessible to you. My gut feeling is that Apple and Jobs have been honest with us. They haven't been completely honest; in fact, they painted an optimistic picture of Jobs' health, making it appear that he was healthier than he actually was. But they've been as honest as anyone can expect them to be.

They came very, very close to the line where marketing spin shades over into outright deception. But they did not cross over that line.

Apple and Jobs did as well as anyone could have expected them to do.

Did they spin the truth? Of course they did. But I think their spin was motivated by three mitigating factors, all of them noble:

First is the obvious one: Desire to keep the stock price up. They put the most positive spin on the facts to keep investors from panicking. That's what every company does, every time they comment on bad news.

Second is a desire to preserve Jobs' privacy. The man has a right to a private life. He has a right to try to protect the dissemination of information about himself, when that information is not relevant to his running the company. As long as Jobs and Apple's directors believed he was fit to continue as CEO, they were under no obligation to divulge Jobs' private medical information.

Yesterday, I took Jobs and Apple to task for playing games with the truth over his condition. That post was poorly timed -- I hit the "publish" button on that one just a few hours before Jobs announced he was taking a leave of absence. But, still, I stand by that post; I think Apple and Jobs were struggling with disclosure until yesterday.

On the other hand, now that Jobs has stepped aside, his health is a private matter, and he's under no obligation to share that information with anyone but his family and closest friends.

Other motivations for Apple's flip-flops on Jobs' health: optimism and denial. People in Jobs' situation, and the people close to them, spend a lot of time hoping for a cure. Some of that hope is rational, some of it is irrational, and some of it is downright foolish, and it's impossible to tell which is which. My gut feeling is that Apple and Jobs believed what they said each time they made a statement, even as the statements contradicted each other.

And if my gut feeling is wrong, nobody's come forward with any evidence to prove otherwise.

Not everyone agrees with me: For example, CNBC's Jim Goldman posted a column yesterday scolding Apple and Jobs for the way they handled the disclosures:


What troubles me is what has transpired over the past week. Sophisticated tests showed Jobs was suffering a hormone imbalance. And only a week later, he admits that something happened in these intervening days that showed him his health-related issues are more complex than he originally thought. Come on. Forgive my skepticism. That seems disingenuous to me at best; dishonest at worst. It's tantamount to fiduciary, ethical and financial whiplash.

Why "disingenuous" and "dishonest"? Apple's and Jobs' behavior seem to me to be exactly the way the human heart works. When you, or someone close to you, is very sick, it takes a long time for that information to sink in. Sometimes it never does. The sick person overestimates his abilities to perform, at least for a while. That's just normal.

Goldman, by the way, is in a unique position among journalists covering Apple and Jobs; until yesterday, he wrote passionate columns defending Jobs and Apple, based on sources who were telling him Jobs was just fine.

How sick is Jobs? I think it's obvious that his condition is life-threatening. Someone with Jobs' devotion to his work wouldn't step aside if that weren't the case.

The New York Times reported that Jobs is not suffering from a recurrence of cancer; instead, he's suffering from a condition that prevents his body from absorbing food, and that doctors have advised him to cut down on stress. They attribute the reports to anonymous sources -- "two people who are familiar with Mr. Jobs' current medical treatment."

John Gruber, writing at the blog Daring Fireball, elaborates by quoting the Times' rigorous policy on using anonymous sources in articles. The Times takes anonymous sourcing, and its risks, very, very seriously. Gruber writes: "Is this proof that Jobs' problem is not a recurrence of cancer? No. But if you think The New York Times published the aforelinked paragraph lightly, or didn't measure every single word of it very carefully, you don't understand how The New York Times operates." Will Jobs come back to Apple? Wired says that analysts believe Jobs isn't coming back -- ever. But I don't think those analysts know what they're talking about. Nor do I, nor does anybody else, except maybe for Jobs, the people closest to him, and his doctors -- and probably not even them.

I for one wouldn't be surprised to see Jobs continuing to run Apple for decades to come. I also wouldn't be surprised to read Jobs' obituary before Valentine's Day.

I can only conclude the same way I concluded my first blog post on this yesterday: That we at InformationWeek pray for Jobs and the people close to him, and for a speedy recovery. I for one am looking forward to seeing a fit and healthy Steve Jobs introduce something insanely great this summer.

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