For a man who assiduously avoids the news media, Steve Jobs is incredibly skilled at exploiting his leverage with the press. So skilled, it's alleged, he turned a top newspaper into a key tool of Apple's public relations.
TechCrunch's MG Siegler this morning published a fascinating compilation of stories that Apple may have planted in the Wall Street Journal to distract people from bad Apple news or, in one case, to bolster the company's buzz and profits. Former Apple marketing manager John Martellaro has written about how and why the company conducts "controlled leaks" to news outlets like the Journal, and there's reason to think the articles cited by Siegler fall into that category; each served a key role in helping Apple move beyond bad news or sharpen the impact of its good news.
There's nothing new about corporations strategically exploiting the press, or about writers — bloggers included — accepting leaks from sources looking to advance their own agendas. Nor is there anything necessarily shameful about it for the parties involved. What makes Apple's tactics more noteworthy is the high degree of leverage the secretive company brings to the table in its dealings with the media, as well as the extraordinary lengths the company sometimes goes to in order to spin the truth.
Here are the cases cited by Siegler. For the record, the Journal told us in a written statement that "The notion that the Journal only relies on Apple's strategic leaks is risible."
Making the cheap iPad sound expensive, January 2010, WSJ: Citing analysts, who themselves cite anonymous sources, the Journal reports that the iPad might cost $1,000. This number makes the iPad look all the more incredible when it debuts at $500, which seems like a bargain in comparison to the earlier figure. Siegler suspects Apple leaked the $1,000 figure, presumably either to the analysts or by indicating the Journal that it would safe to cite that number.
Burying the iPhone 4 recall idea, July 2010, WSJ: The day before an Apple press conference about malfunctioning iPhones, the Journal carried an anonymously sourced story indicating the company will not be recalling the devices. The next day, Apple indeed announced no plans to fix the phone, but expectations were sufficiently reduced by the WSJ report that the company got some positive buzz by offering free bumper cases or full refunds to customers.
Burying Steve Jobs' liver transplant, June 2009, WSJ: The night of the high-profile iPhone 3GS launch, , the Journal broke the news that Jobs had undergone a liver transplant during his medical leave in the preceding six months. The news was exquisitely timed — if you work in Apple PR. The iPhone launch publicity and the coming weekend were both distracting potential readers of this bit of news, which underlined just how fragile Jobs' health had been, Apple PR's earlier protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.
Verizon iPhone,, October 2010, WSJ: Today, the Journal reported that Verizon is preparing to launch an iPhone in early 2011. It just so happens that loads of competing phones running archrival Google's Android operating system are being announced at the CTIA wireless industry conference under way in San Francisco right now. Meanwhile, there's more and more media chatter about how Android is overtaking iPhone OS in sales.
Coincidence? In each case, Siegler suspects not, and sees Apple's invisible hand. Maybe that sounds a little paranoid; Kara Swisher, a former WSJ reporter and current employee of WSJ parent company Dow Jones, took to the TechCrunch comments to accuse the writer of "Grassy Knoll" conspiracy mongering, adding in a later comment that several of the WSJ stories were "pure shoe leather reporting... published... when they were done and not on some fictional schedule to help Apple."
Fair enough; the idea that Apple fed these stories to the WSJ is speculative and backed by circumstantial evidence. Siegler, unlike Swisher, was never part of the traditional journalism establishment; the writer rose up out of the ranks of indy bloggers, algorithimically boosted by Techmeme, plucked out of obscurity by VentureBeat, then artfully poached by TechCrunch. He speaks, in many instances, for the paranoid rank-and-file engineer who knows nothing about how the sausage of journalism is made, but is deeply suspicious of it, and sees conspiracies everywhere.
And who is to say said engineers are wrong, or even misguided? You don't get too far into the God's honest truth with an operation as tight-lipped as Apple without a little conjecture and dot-connecting.
Friction between old and new media aside, it's important to remember that you can admire Apple's brilliant media manipulations without morally condemning any of the people involved, just like you can admire a Steve Jobs keynote even when you have zero interest in buying the product.
Update: We've added a statement from a Journal spokesperson. The story previously explained that a Journal reporter referred us to a spokesperson, who we were unable to reach prior to publication.