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

The man and his company's focus on control led to repeated fights with reporters.

October 07, 2011|James Rainey
  • In this June 9, 2008, file photo, Steve Jobs announces the introduction of the iPhone 3G during the Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco. Reporters who covered Apple tell tales of being poked or prodded by the company for straying out of line.
In this June 9, 2008, file photo, Steve Jobs announces the introduction… (Los Angeles Times )

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.

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