Look Who's Talking About Steve Jobs's Health

The wall of secrecy surrounding Steve Jobs's medical crisis is breaking down. Now that the Apple CEO has announced he's taking a six-month medical leave, his confidantes are speaking to the press. But which ones?

This much we know: Jobs is very private, to the point of obsession. Chatting with a group of journalists in 2005, he mentioned that he'd recently bought a bicycle that was "just ... wonderful" — and then refused to disclose the name of the brand. In a peevish letter disclosing some of his health problems, a week before he announced that they were more serious and required a six-month leave of absence, he wrote, "So now I’ve said more than I wanted to say, and all that I am going to say, about this."

Jobs does have a few close friends, though, who are more talkative. Among them: Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and former Intuit CEO Bill Campbell, a current Apple board member. No reporter has named them as sources, but they're the most likely candidates to be privy to the details of his health, and to share them.

What is prompting them to talk now? It could be the threat of shareholder lawsuits. Apple's stock has continued to drop since the announcement of Jobs's leave, as investors grow outraged over Jobs's ever-shifting story line about his health. His friends may be as concerned about his legal exposure as the state of his health, prompting them to dribble information out to the press.

What they're saying: Jobs does not have a recurrence of the pancreatic cancer; his visible weight loss is due to digestive problems. Notice the Wall Street Journal's careful positioning of its sources in its story:

A person familiar with the situation said that Mr. Jobs didn't have a recurrence of cancer and that he was taking a leave of absence because the treatment to fix the problem of not being able to absorb proteins was more complex than initially believed....

Mr. Jobs didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Apple board members declined to comment or couldn't immediately be reached. An Apple spokesman declined to provide more details about Mr. Jobs's health.

That rules out Campbell, the Apple board member, but not, say a top Apple executive or a friend like Ellison.

The New York Times is vaguer, citing sources "familiar" with Jobs's health:

Two people who are familiar with Mr. Jobs’s current medical treatment said he was not suffering from a recurrence of cancer, but a condition that was preventing his body from absorbing food. Doctors have also advised him to cut down on stress, which may be making the problem worse, these people said.

An Apple spokesman, Steve Dowling, said the company had no comment beyond Mr. Jobs’s letter

That leaves the field wide open.

The New York Post's story was by far the most detailed on its sourcing:

According to a source who does consulting work for Apple, "People in the company think he's very ill and there's a general sense that he's not getting better."

Sources suggested that Jobs is not being forthcoming about the severity of his condition, with one Disney insider saying that he was too ill to attend a meeting in late December - which would predate the Jan. 5 letter he wrote to his staff.

Added a source who serves on a board with Jobs: "He has a really big problem and he doesn't know how to deal with it."

Jobs only serves on two boards: Apple's and Disney's. But the "Disney insider" and fellow board member appear to be two distinct sources. Campbell again? He's on the Apple board with Jobs, and we hear he's fairly chatty. He might also be the source who spoke to CNBC's Jim Goldman. Jobs will likely be infuriated that anyone's talking about his health; he famously hired Robin Zonic, a former parole officer, to prosecute leaks at Apple. Will he lash out at his friends for blabbing? Unlikely, as long as the papers keep giving them such artfully worded deniability.

(Photo by AP/Paul Sakuma)