Carl Levin

Joe Nocera does it again

May 23, 2013: 7:24 AM ET

On the New York Times Op-Ed page he calls Apple CEO Tim Cook a liar.

Nocera. Photo: Fred R. Conrad/New York Times

Nocera. Photo: Fred R. Conrad/New York Times

FORTUNE -- I met Joe Nocera once, and he seemed like a nice guy. Over his long career as a business journalist -- including more than a decade at Fortune -- he's done some first-rate work on Apple (AAPL). "The Second Coming of Steve Jobs," a profile for Esquire of the entrepreneur at age 31, may be the best close-up portrait of Jobs that anybody has written, before or since. And two days after Jobs resigned in 2011 he wrote a lovely farewell column that was especially gracious, given their past history.

But Nocera has also made it his business to be the fiercest critic of what he sees as shady business dealings at the company's highest levels -- first with backdated options that led to resignation of Apple's general counsel and the retirement of its former CFO (but not, to Nocera's evident dismay, an SEC complaint against Jobs himself), and now with the offshore tax strategies that brought Jobs' successor, Tim Cook, before a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday.

I happen to agree with one of the points Nocera makes in his New York Times op-ed column Thursday. There is something about sending tens of billions of dollars to a holding company that has tax residency in no country on earth that seems to violate the spirit of the law -- despite Cook's assertion to the contrary.

But what will be remembered about Nocera's latest Apple column is that he called Tim Cook a liar -- accusing him of telling, under oath, a "whopper" and a "flat-out lie."

Nocera implies, but doesn't actually say, that he makes those charges after watching Cook's testimony.

I watched Cook's testimony -- twice. I find it hard to believe that Nocera saw any of it. And having read the documents and news articles he cites, I believe that on the points with which he has factual disagreements with Cook, he's provably wrong.

Specifically:

  • Nocera claims that Apple "pays only 10% of its pretax income in taxes." But he gets that 10% figure by making the same rookie mistake the subcommittee's staff did, dividing Apple's U.S. taxes by its worldwide sales.
  • He claims that Apple routes "tens of billions in pretax profits" to an Irish subsidiary, when Cook testified repeatedly -- under oath -- that those were post-tax profits.
  • He points readers to a Wall Street Journal article that says Apple duped investors by making it look like it paid more taxes than it did. First, I suspect investors will be pleased to learn that Apple earns more that it reports each quarter. Second, if Nocera had read to the end of the Journal article, he would have learned that the paper's own accounting expert was unpersuaded by the subcommittee's claim that Apple's taxes were overstated.
  • He quotes Sen. Carl Levin's characterization of Apple's Irish tax haven as if it was the official conclusion of the subcommittee's investigation. But anyone who watched Levin's performance would know that he said all kinds of things in a final 10 minute rant that contradicted previous testimony and known facts, and that he closed that portion of the hearing without giving Apple's witnesses a chance to respond.
  • Finally, there's this: "[Cook] even said that the low taxes Apple pays overseas is on the profits of its overseas sales. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this was a flat-out lie." I've heard the testimony and read the subcommittee report. As near as I can tell, Apple does pay taxes overseas on the sales it makes overseas. How can Nocera call Cook a liar without the evidence to back it up?

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 8.08.46 AMAs I say, Nocera has a long history with Apple -- a history, in his defense, that includes being told some flat-out lies. The biggest whopper was probably the one Steve Jobs told him in 2008 when, according to Nocera, Jobs assured him that he didn't have cancer.

It was Nocera's 2008 account of that phone call with Jobs that captured, in two sentences, the essence of their relationship:

"This is Steve Jobs," [Jobs] 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."

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