Steve Jobs and the media: For the most part, it was a love affair

October 6, 2011

For a man who could be as pushy, manipulative and at times downright prickly with the press as he was with the engineers who designed his products, Steve Jobs enjoyed almost worshipful media coverage.

His death on Wednesday at age 56 was met with the journalistic equivalent of a public rending of garments. “Visionary,” was the operative adjective, bookended by “genius.” The New York Times placed his obituary over two columns in the top right spot typically reserved for revolutions and mass upheavals. The Wall Street Journal went full banner, draping its front page with a simple “Steven Paul Jobs, 1955-2011.”

Given Jobs’s storied record, the quasi-religious hosannas were predictable. As Walt Mossberg, the Wall Street Journal’s technology columnist, wrote, Jobs rivaled Henry Ford as an industrialist and Thomas Edison as an innovator. In just over a dozen years, he transformed a foundering computer company into a giant of commerce and culture, with a broad influence on movies, music, advertising and retailing.

Reporters ate up Jobs’s oracular utterances at the annual Macworld convention and parsed his sentences for clues to the future. He could be charming to favored reporters, but he was also quick to rebut and rebuke critics. When Rolling Stone magazine declined to put the father of the Macintosh on its cover upon the introduction of the computer in 1984, Jobs called publisher Jann Wenner to complain. “Don’t hold your breath,” Wenner told him, according to journalist Steven Levy in a profile of Jobs on Wired.com on Thursday. Jobs’s demands for featured magazine coverage would later be “eagerly accommodated.”

“He could bully underlings and corporate giants with the same contempt,” wrote Levy. “But when he chose to charm, he was almost irresistible.”

Journalists may have been Apple’s original fanboys (and gals). Early on, the company presented an irresistible underdog story, the garage start-up taking on the corporate behemoth — a narrative Apple stoked in its “1984” and “Think Different” ad campaigns. It’s true, too, that many reporters were early adopters of Apple products, and many use them to this day, surely enhancing positive media feelings.

Jobs stoked Apple’s mystique by perfecting the art of the selective leak. The secrecy surrounding its new products is legendary, which only intensifies journalists’ desire to know what’s afoot. The iPad generated more than 25,000 stories before anyone outside the company had actually seen one — but Jobs and his underlings became masters at passing off-the-record tips into the ears of eager reporters.

For all the coverage, a remarkable number of important things were not revealed about Jobs. No one wrote that he had a liver transplant in a Tennessee hospital until days after the operation. Only a few photos of his wife and children have been published in mainstream publications. For someone as rich and famous as Jobs, particularly in an age in which the technology he created made privacy more difficult, he had an astonishing zone of seclusion.

Mossberg, the Journal columnist, says Jobs viewed the media through a complicated prism, shrewdly sizing up who could help the company and who could hurt.

“It’s pretty hard for me to generalize because he had different relationships with different journalists,” Mossberg said in an interview. “A lot depended on whether you were a reporter covering the company or a reviewer of its products.”

Mossberg was one of the favored ones. In a column posted after Jobs’s death, he recalled how Jobs, upon his return to Apple in 1997, began calling Mossberg at his home, which he knew was part of an attempt to “flatter” him and win positive reviews for products that the critic had been panning.

But soon their conversations turned into something more — a working relationship, a friendship. Jobs invited Mossberg to private unveilings of Apple’s new products, insisting “on covering the new gadgets with cloths and then uncovering them like the showman he was, a gleam in his eye and passion in his voice,” as he wrote Wednesday night. “We’d then often sit down for a long, long discussion of the present, the future, and general industry gossip.”

The sheer weight of all the laudatory coverage of Jobs’s death was too much for some. On the Web site Gawker.com, Hamilton Nolan wrote that Jobs “did not meaningfully reduce poverty, or make life-saving scientific discoveries, or end wars or heal the sick or befriend the friendless. Which is fine — most of us don’t. But most of us don’t provoke such cult-like lachrymosity when we pass on.”

But the media’s general attitude toward Jobs and Apple was perhaps summarized by Brian Lam, the former editor of the tech site Gizmodo. After Gizmodo got hold of a prototype of a new iPhone4, threatening Apple’s carefully planned introduction of the product, Lam recalled getting a call from Jobs asking for the phone back.

“He wasn’t demanding.” wrote Lam on Thursday. “He was asking. And he was charming and he was funny.”

Jobs continued, “There are two ways we can do this. I can send someone to pick up the phone . . . ”

After a veiled threat of legal action and a contentious exchange, Jobs had one last question: “What do you think of it?”

Replied Lam, “It’s beautiful.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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