Opinion: In defense of Steve Jobs's privacy

January 26, 2011: 2:32 PM ET

Why does the public, the punditry and the press have such an big appetite for information about Steve Jobs's health?

By David A. Kaplan, contributor

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

Of the many things Apple does brilliantly, information dissemination isn't among them. The company's reputation for secrecy is richly deserved: its employees are terrified of misspeaking, or speaking at all, to the media; its legal apparatchik attack trivial rumors as if they're trade libel; product-development updates makes one pine for the openness of the Manhattan Project. So it's been for nearly seven years that the health of Steve Jobs has been the subject relentless speculation by the media and Wall Street—and precious little explication from Apple.

Last week came word that Jobs has begun his third "medical leave of absence." His six-sentence e-mail to employees, which Apple (AAPLreleased to the public, offered no details of his health—not about if his non-lethal form of pancreatic cancer had returned, not whether he had new complications from his liver transplant, not whether he's undergoing new therapy. And this time, there was no mention of a planned return date. The punditocracy parsed the point relentlessly. Blogs speculated about whether such lack of optimism meant he was never coming back. Physicians with no knowledge of the specific patient instantly opined about the general statistics for the variety of conditions Jobs might have (never mind that his actual physicians themselves may have only informed prognostic guesses). Columnists and analysts on the talking heads circuit indignantly demanded additional information—all the more so when it concerned an iconic, nonpareil CEO of a $300 billion public company. Jobs anticipated the clamor. "My family and I would deeply appreciate respect for our privacy," is how he concluded his e-mail. The nerve of the guy!

In fact, though, he's right. The cry for more, it seems to me, is ghoulish curiosity masquerading as the right-to-know-about-a-public-company. Just what is it we all have to learn about Jobs's health, since we already well apprehend he's no Sumner Redstone (87 and going strong) or "Papa Jack" Weil (107 when he died in 2008, still the CEO of Rockmount Ranch Wear).

It's clear that the 55-year-old Jobs isn't well. That's why he decided to step aside again. Is it "material" under securities law (or the dictates of common sense) to know if he's pretty ill, very ill, or terminally ill? Leaving aside that the last category has no particularly useful definition—it's used more on "House" more than by oncologists—would such knowledge affect shareholder behavior? Likely not, as predictions of longevity are often wrong anyway; that's especially the case when a patient may have a range of problems more connected with treatment – complicated abdominal surgery as well as an organ transplant – than the underlying cancer. Besides, if a company with a robust CEO is what you want in your investment portfolio, you long ago ruled out Apple. And of course even the healthiest CEO can die in a plane crash or keel over from a coronary. The stock market is no place for those demanding certitude.

But let's assume Jobs is in a sharing mood. (It's my hypothetical, so play along.) In an entirely transparent, genuine interview with Oprah, he tells us that his new liver is acting up, causing all kinds of systemic immunological reactions. Or perhaps that a new malignancy has developed in his abdomen. Or merely that he feels like crap, can't put on weight, and has trouble sleeping. Do you feel enlightened now, ready to go forth with a new investment strategy? I doubt it, but, yes, you say. O.K., then, how much evidentiary proof do you require from Jobs? Will a statement from his physician (routed through Apple's P.R. department) suffice? Or do you need supporting blood chemistries, CT scans, and doctors' notes? Oh wait, wouldn't a press conference with all the physicians be better? Oh wait, they're not under oath at a press conference, so perhaps they should be deposed by a class-action lawyer who's doing pre-discovery for a possible shareholder suit—since, after all, the stock price dipped on the initial news of the medical news (though quickly recovered)? And by the way, even if you get some or all of this disclosure, what about next month when Jobs still hasn't returned? Do you need new lab and radiology studies? Better yet, should Jobs just invite CNN along to each medical appointment? When, and where, does it stop?

Such matters, obviously, are always a question of line-drawing. Even the president of the U.S. gets some privacy in his medical records. It's surely true that Jobs and Apple two years ago disclosed too little too late when they sat on information about Jobs's liver transplant. Maybe the SEC should have sanctioned Apple, though the market's long-term response to Jobs's health clearly reflects little worry—Apple's stock is nearly four times higher than where it was two years ago. But right now Jobs has told us all we need to know. The fact we want more doesn't make it relevant. My hunch is if Jobs resigned tomorrow, we'd still persist in our punditry and our reportage—intoning things like "who knew what and when did they know it." Sometimes gossip is just gossip.

"No wants to die," Jobs reflected in his remarkable commencement address in 2005 at Stanford. "And yet death is the destination we all share." Jobs may be closer to the destination than most of us – and he may not be. But he has no obligation to give us a play-by-play.

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