Wrong — Steve’s health is my business

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.

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