Wrong — Steve’s health is my business

by Mathew on July 26, 2008 · 26 comments

Ever since Apple’s co-founder, CEO and resident visionary Steven P. Jobs showed up at the Apple developers’ forum looking like a stick figure in a turtleneck, there has been talk about whether he is suffering from a recurrence of the pancreatic cancer he was diagnosed with in 2004. The latest return to that theme is a piece by Joe Nocera in the New York Times about Apple and its “culture of secrecy,” in which the columnist describes how Jobs called him and said ““You think I’m an arrogant [expletive] who thinks he’s above the law, and I think you’re a slime bucket who gets most of his facts wrong.” Jobs then agreed to talk about his health, but only if the details were kept off the record.

The central point that is up for debate is whether Steve’s health is a public matter or a private matter. When I wrote a blog post about Steve’s appearance — one of the first blogs to do so following the developers’ conference — I got criticism both in the comments section of the post and in private emails for raising the issue, which several people said was inappropriate and even “creepy.” I disagreed then and I still disagree now. As Nocera describes in his piece, it’s not clear when a senior executive’s health becomes a material factor for investors, requiring public disclosure. But as far as I’m concerned, the fact that the CEO of a public company like Apple is fighting a potentially terminal disease (if that’s true) definitely qualifies as material information.

As one brokerage analyst says in the NYT piece, “Apple is Steve Jobs and Steve Jobs is Apple.” The analyst estimates that the company’s share price would fall by as much as 25 per cent if Jobs were to “leave the company unexpectedly” (nice euphemism there). What other event could cause that kind of drop and not be considered material? The last time the issue came up, Paul Kedrosky and I tried to come up with the names of other companies where the CEO was such a crucial part of the perceived value of the stock, and the pickings were slim indeed (Berkshire Hathaway was one, as well as Virgin, and maybe News Corp.). He is inextricably linked with the company’s fortunes.

Apple might like to believe that “Steve Jobs’ health is a private matter,” as the company has said repeatedly since the issue first surfaced, and perhaps it even believes that repeating it over and over will make it so, courtesy of the legendary Jobs “reality distortion field.” But the fact remains that Steve Jobs accounts for a substantial portion of the value of a publicly-traded company, and that effectively makes it a matter of public interest, whether Apple likes it or not.

  • http://leighhimel.blogspot.com leigh

    Once again, I think if you set expectations and part of your brands star power (and therefore stock price) is your marketing usage of your CEO, then fair or not, their personal lives becomes public territory.

  • http://joeduck.wordpress.com JoeDuck

    Of course Job's health is material information and it should be disclosed if there is any indication he'll be unable to perform his duties for years into the future. I'm not sure how far down the corporate ladder you need to go before health is no longer a reasonable issue, but certainly in this case it is. I'd suggest that part of full SEC disclosure all CEO's should have their health records on file and viewable by shareholders.

  • http://scrawledinwax.com scrawledinwax

    I agree. Giz put up a post today with the usual libertarian 'it's about personal freedom and privacy' argument. Fair enough. But as you and Leigh said, when so much of the company's reputation rests on one man, then stockholders deserve to know what's going on. Claiming a right to privacy sounds like wanting it both ways – maintaining the Jobs cult of personality as a marketing tool but not living up to the responsibility that very tactic entails.

  • Jim Parsons

    Absolutely… we MUST know! and I can't wait to start seeing Fortune 500 CEO colonoscopys broadcast live on CNNMoneyLine, MSNBC and the other financial channels so analysts, journalists and bloggers can talk about them.

    As I've said twice today: with the economic melt down in full swing I find it deliciously ironic that Wall Street is actually screaming at someone else for more “honesty” :-)

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  • AAPL Watch

    Jobs health is an issue if he is too sick to do his job effectively, and he should notify the Board and the shareholders if he is not healthy, and is unable to do his job.

    But you want him to have to reassure you on a daily basis that he is healthy? If not daily, how often? I'm just asking, because you think you have a right to be told publicly not just if Steve Jobs is sick, but also if he isn't, right? You want reassurances that he is healthy. So how often should he release a press statement about his health? Daily? Monthly? Kick off every Macworld with his medical chart?

    Do you see the difference?

  • http://www.fridgebuzz.com Vanessa Williams

    I love Apple, but it has a single point of failure: Steve Jobs. The company is just one more big stupid computer company without the man. When he goes (he's not going to live forever), our beloved Apple goes with him. That's the sad and sorry truth. (And a reason I'm glad I'm not holding AAPL stock.)

  • http://www.propr.ca thornley

    Mathew, I read your writing regularly and I regard you as a smart and insightful columnist.

    There is a difference between speculation and good reporting. The former simply throws out an “I wonder if…” The latter involves follow up. That's what Joe Nocera did. He called Apple's PR department to ask about Jobs' health. The fact that they stonewalled him provided the basis for Nocera to write an article. And the fact that he did chase the story may well have led to him getting the real scoop here – a call directly from Steve Jobs and confirmation that Jobs' current problem is not cancer.

    I think that any of us who write about others should not be satisfied with simple speculation, especially about something as personal as someone's health.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I never said I wanted him to reassure anyone that he was healthy on a
    daily basis — I said that if his cancer has returned, it's a matter
    of shareholder interest.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks for the compliment, Joe. But with all due respect, as far as
    I'm concerned there is a place for both speculation and reporting –
    they aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, Joe Nocera did some of both
    in his Times piece. The fact that he put in a phone call to Apple's
    PR people and got the standard response doesn't change that, nor does
    the fact that he was lucky enough to get a call from Steve Jobs.

  • AAPL Watch

    Exactly! If his cancer returned, and it was affecting his work, he has a responsibilty to report it to the Board, who has a responsibility to take action.

    His cancer didn't return, so he didn't have to report to the Board, who didn''t have to take any action. Exactly as it should be, and exactly what has transpired.

  • http://www.bullishbankers.com Bullish Bankers

    I agree! I am an apple shareholder and if something were to happen to Steve Jobs that would absolutely devastate the stock as many people remain bullish on the company simply because we believe in Steve Jobs. Wall Street shouldn't be hiding things like this.

  • http://www.techstuff.ca Sandy

    Healthy or not, Steve could be hit by a bus tomorrow. Shareholders knew “Apple = Steve” before his cancer scare. Isn't the real issue the One Man Band leadership team?

  • Maggy Young

    Hey Sandy, I was just about to write the same point as you before I came to your post. Exactly. And how many senior middle aged executives aren't potentially at risk from some health problem, whether known or unknown. The recent sudden death of a prominent US broadcaster has just underlined that point. Steve or any other senior exec. could just drop dead tomorrow anyway.
    So I think the 'health monitoring' is an unnecessary invasion of privacy, although it is fair reporting. Someone as significant as Steve Jobs should reluctantly accept this.
    The whole point is that Steve will have to go sometime anyway & Apple should have groomed a successor & if not, why not ? That is what they should be accounting to stockholders & Wall St. for.

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    That said, my health is fine, and I'm sure I would be replaced if incapable of writing the blogs. That's business, not sentiment. With Steve …

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    I'd suggest that part of full SEC disclosure all CEO's should have their health records on file and viewable by shareholders.

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  • pestcontrolsaintgeorge

    If Apple is nothing without Steve, we might as well all pack up and go home right now. Not because Steve may or may not be seriously ill, but because Steve is not immortal. One day he’ll die, just like all the rest of us.
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