When the Times got a call from Steve Jobs, the hands-on CEO of personal computer maker Apple, it had already been investigating the former pancreatic cancer victim's health for several days. Following a Monday report in the Post that some Jobs associates were "troubled by his thin appearance," the Times on Wednesday revealed Jobs underwent some sort of surgical procedure earlier this year. By Thursday afternoon, Times columnist Joe Nocera was preparing to report that Jobs was losing weight due to "ongoing digestive difficulty" and, possibly, due to a recent infection. That's when Jobs phoned to give a peace of his mind. But with a liberal interpretation of the term "off the record," Nocera would go on to finagle a scoop out of the confrontational call:
"This is Steve Jobs," he began. "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."
After that rather arresting opening, he went on to say that he would give me some details about his recent health problems, but only if I would agree to keep them off the record.
Nocera goes on to say, "because the conversation was off the record, I cannot disclose what Mr. Jobs told me." Except then he does, through the neat trick of pointing out what Jobs didn't say.
Namely, Jobs didn't contradict anything the Times had written. Which means he doesn't have cancer, but ]has experienced digestive problems well beyond the "common bug" Apple PR had said previously he was suffering from.
Or at least that's the way Nocera reads things. Normally, one would be on shaky ground equating lack of a denial with confirmation. But Nocera had a conversation with Jobs and, in the wake of it and possibly informed by it, the longtime business journalist apparently felt comfortable enough to state the following:
After he hung up the phone, it occurred to me that I had just been handed, by Mr. Jobs himself, the very information he was refusing to share with the shareholders who have entrusted him with their money.
You would think he'd want them to know before me. But apparently not.
Of course, Jobs is free to communicate with investors through widely-available publications like the Times. It's hard to see how Nocera's column is any less accessible to them than, say, an Apple press release, or why Nocera, of all people, would be pushing for the latter over the former.
But at least the columnist found a way, however slippery, to mention Jobs' off-the-record conversation in print. One wonders how many other journalists have let their coverage be influenced by such chats without at least letting readers know they occurred in the first place.