Steve Jobs "Health" Issue Just Gets Curiouser And Curiouser

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs

Let me start by saying we all make mistakes, but when it comes to Apple Inc., when you make a mistake it matters. In this business, you can make or lose a lot of money for a lot of people by getting a story right or wrong.

Believe me, after last week's iPhone debacle, I speak from experience. Recent experience.

But yesterday's mistake by the Associated Press about Steve Jobs and Apple's conference call, and whether he was there, is commonly there, not commonly there, whether it was an indication of health issues, or no health issues, just struck me as weird.

The background: When Apple began its conference call, Steve Jobs was absent. Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer handled the duties. And in a normal circumstance, that scenario would get little attention. But following the New York Post's coverage yesterday morning about certain hedge fund managers "worried" about Steve Jobs' health, rehashing a bunch of details that were well over a month old, it brought the whole issue back into the discourse. And that's probably what was on the mind of the Associated Press reporter covering the conference call, wondering why Jobs wasn't present.

She wrote in an early filing: "Steve Jobs, Apple's chief executive, did not join the conference call with investors as he commonly does, prompting an analyst to inquire about his health. Jobs survived pancreatic cancer."

Apple shares were already suffering enormous pressure heading into the call because of the company's weaker than expected fourth quarter guidance. But when this story, with those sentences, hit the wires, Apple's plunge accelerated into a free-fall. Was Jobs ill? Did his absence from the call indicate that he wasn't physically up to it? Were all those concerns a month ago, that finally began to dissipate, actually well-founded? It seemed investors were answering yes, yes, and yes, and drove Apple shares down dramatically. The message boards lit up like a Christmas tree with brutal speculation about what this all meant.

Investors, however, should have answered "no," "no," and "no."

You see, Jobs is never on the company's earnings call. Never. Ever. And anyone covering this company knows it. And anyone investing in the company should know it. And that's why that sentence in the AP story is so troubling, and so factually off base: "Steve Jobs, Apple's chief executive, did not join the conference call with investors as he commonly does..." is simply not true. And his absence wasn't "prompting an analyst to inquire about his health." That analyst was Ben Reitzes, a longtime Apple expert who has been covering the company for years, and knows that Jobs isn't "commonly" on the call, and therefore wouldn't use that issue as a prompt to inquire about Jobs' health. The fact is, the concerns about Jobs' health followed last month's appearance at the Worldwide Developer's Conference, and yesterday's conference call was the first opportunity analysts had to ask the company about any health issues directly.

Oppenheimer answered the question by saying Jobs "has no plan to leave Apple," adding, "Steve's health is a private matter." That line was also dissected. Was Apple hiding something? Was there something more serious going on? Was Jobs physically weak?

Ummm, no, no and no. This is the same line Apple has used all along. Jobs' health is a private matter. Until it isn't. And there's something that occurs that has a material impact on the company. At which time it would no longer be a private matter. But it is now. Which means there's no material impact. Apple has been consistent on this issue. We can certainly argue that Jobs' is a unique CEO, and his health is intricately woven into the overall corporate health of Apple. And maybe Apple's got a responsibility to disclose more about his health -- especially following his pancreatic cancer scare -- than the company would normally do otherwise. I can easily see both sides of that argument.

But that's not what this post is about: it's about "news," and rumor-mongering," and watching something catch fire in the markets even though it makes no sense. The AP changed later stories by saying, simply, "Steve Jobs, Apple's chief executive, did not join the conference call with investors." A small correction -- that still calls attention to something that just isn't "attention" worthy, but a correction nonetheless. That original AP story was careless. But the trading in Apple shares based on it was reckless.

Chalk it up to another headache for Apple investors wondering why the longs keep coming up short.

Questions? Comments?