I rarely take things at face value. It's one of the reasons I do what I do for a living.
This trait has been gnawing at me since my sit-down, face-to-face interview with Apple's Steve Jobs on Monday. And since then, I have been thinking about his face a lot.
I have been silent about my impressions of him, letting the video of my interview with him speak for itself. But amid a torrent of blogospheric speculation about his health because of his drawn, gaunt, wan appearance; his conspicuously short amount of stage time during his own keynote address that was dominated by guest speakers instead of the man himself; and his thin-sounding voice during my interview, I thought I'd share some thoughts about all this.
Especially since I was only one of two broadcast reporters to have the chance to do an on-camera interview with Jobs. And especially since it appears Apple shares are reacting so negatively to the speculation.
When Jobs did arrive for my interview (see video clip), I, like many of you, was immediately struck by his appearance. He was smiley, cordial, forthcoming, engaged with his usual piercing eye-contact. Let's face it, he's a terrific interview. But, his handshake was moderate, his hands felt bony and I was taken aback by his extremely narrow face, slight build, and noticeable shoulder bones through his shirt. Those aren't my impressions looking back in time through the prism of speculation since. That's what I thought then; that these weren't the features of a guy who'd been working out, or on a diet. They seemed far more severe. Sickly.
My interview concluded, and I headed downstairs to share his comments on the air. I wondered whether I should have asked him about his health. It's a strange balancing act: my story was about Apple, the new iPhone, and hearing from Jobs. Journalistically, should I have broached the health topic? I did a couple of times before, as the first reporter to interview Jobs following his return to work after his original surgery to remove a malignant tumor in his pancreas. He appreciated the question, told me he was feeling better and happy to be back. Contextually, those questions back then seemed to make more sense. This time around, it just didn't.
Yet, I asked Amazon's Jeff Bezos about his own thin appearance when we got together at the D: All Things Digital Conference in Carlsbad a few weeks ago. He too looked very thin to me. He robustly shook off my question with that trademarked laugh and I moved on.
But Bezos isn't Jobs, there wasn't the cancer scare in his past, and there aren't tens of thousands of Bezos fanatics studying his every move, his every word.
I began to think that I should've asked Jobs about it when I was stopped twice on my way down to the truck by passers-by asking me about him and his appearance. Was he ok? What did I think? I didn't know what to think. Later that day, I casually asked some Apple folks about all of this, and they either hadn't noticed or didn't want to address it.
But the blogs went wild. Did Jobs' pancreatic cancer come back? Was he on chemotherapy? Was it something else? Many of these questions would seem, well, unseemly if Apple hadn't kept his original cancer diagnosis a secret until it was legally compelled to release the news because of Jobs' time away from the office to recover from surgery.
So there's a fair amount of mistrust and skepticism out there.
Which brings us to what is now the official Apple statement about all this: That Jobs has been suffering from a virus, and thanks to an antibiotics regimen, is getting better daily, spokeswoman Katie Cotton, vice president of worldwide communications, tells me this morning. She also knows that if the statement she's sharing isn't true, she risks going to jail. This is material information about the CEO of a company that hinges on his ability to run the place. Apple is synonymous with Jobs and vice versa.
During his cancer scare, there was speculation that if he left Apple, the company's market cap would plunge by 50 percent. "If there's more, we'd tell you," she said to me. Sure, a statement from Jobs' acknowledging the "outpouring of concern" for his health and reassuring everyone, in light of his history, that he's fine, would be effective, but don't count on that.
If there's something more serious going on here than merely a nasty virus, and Apple knows it, and lies about it, the consequences would be devastating. Apple's been through the SEC wringer before and likely doesn't want to go through that again. Which goes back to my "face value" thing.
This might be one of those rare occasions where it might be ok to take the company's statement at face value. That doesn't mean we stop looking around, but it does mean that all those bloggers and Apple shorts throwing kerosene on the rumor embers are doing so recklessly. And investors ought to be aware of that.
And just like Cotton who cannot legally share misinformation, we here at CNBC can't simply report speculation without the proper context. This story has been knocked around at the highest levels of this network. How to pursue it? Whether there's anything to pursue? Reporting my impressions, for what they're worth, sure.
But idle, scurrilous chatter that can be the lifeblood of blogs does not have a place here and that's the tightrope we're walking. With our audience, and our reach, and our reputation, we have to be incredibly careful. I think both Apple and we are acting responsibly. News can be an ugly, messy business. And despite Jobs' global profile, right up there with Oprah, Bono, Mandela, he's a person, a husband, a dad too.
Everyone wants to be first. But I'll take "accurate" over "first" any day.
Update: Many readers have written in, responding to this post, about Apple's claims that Jobs suffered from a "virus" and that he's being treated with antibiotics. Since antibiotics are typically used to treat bacterial infections, you have questioned Apple's statement. I have called Apple for clarification. Apple says--and has maintained--that Jobs was suffering from a "common bug," not a virus, and he is indeed being treated with antibiotics. My apologies for that confusion.
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