Player of favorites: Tim Cook. (Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg) (David Paul Morris/BLOOMBERG)

“We see that people are in love with a lot of apps and functionality here,” said Mr. Cook, 51 years old, pointing at his iPhone. “Anywhere where that makes sense, we are going to move that over to Mac.”

The occasion for the Journal’s scoop is Apple’s early peek at “Mountain Lion,” the latest iteration of the Mac OS X that’ll be available in the summer. No wonder the Journal’s story has already racked up 536 tweets: It notes that Cook “already thinks of Apple’s iOS and OS X operating systems ‘as one with incremental functionality.’” Throw in a dash of mogul bravado, too: “I don’t really think anything Microsoft does puts pressure on Apple,” Cook told the Journal.

An exclusive, of course, cuts two ways. Payoff for the recipient and pain for the shunned. Heading up the latter camp is the New York Times, arguably the most aggressive pursuer of Apple-related news on the planet. The paper has a hulking tech pod to evaluate its products and has dug deeply into the business of Apple via its iEconomy series.

And in the process, the paper has come up with a shovelful of human suffering. This story on an Apple facility in China includes this explosive graph:

Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple’s products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors.

Hard-edged reporting of that sort carries a price when it comes to a company like Apple. You may not be on the short­list the next time the company debuts one of its products.

Such appears to be the case with “Mountain Lion.” An item this morning on the paper’s Bits blog discusses the rollout and quotes Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing: “The Mac is on a roll, growing faster than the PC for 23 straight quarters, and with Mountain Lion things get even better.”

That’s from a company press release.

The ouch gets ouchier as the blog post quotes a blogger John Gruber from Daring Fireball . Gruber, as it turns out, had gotten a sit-down with Schiller, right in the Times’ back yard:

“We’re starting to do some things differently,” Phil Schiller said to me.

We were sitting in a comfortable hotel suite in Manhattan just over a week ago. I’d been summoned a few days earlier by Apple PR with the offer of a private “product briefing”. I had no idea heading into the meeting what it was about. I had no idea how it would be conducted. This was new territory for me, and I think, for Apple.

Says a source at the Times: “They are playing access journalism...I’ve heard it from people inside Apple: They said, look, you guys are going to get less access based on the iEconomy series.”

The on-the-record word from the New York Times differs only slightly from the not-for-attribution word: “We’re never happy with our access to Apple. We never have been. Apple is a difficult company to report on,” says Damon Darlin, the paper’s tech editor. When asked how big a deal is the Journal’s exclusive with Cook, Darlin responds: “Talking to the CEO of one of the largest technology companies, the highest-valued company of the world? Yes, we would like to do that. They know that.”

Says Larry Ingrassia, the editor who has supervised the iEconomy series: “We talk to them all the time. If you want to put more detail on who they talk to and about what and who they give interviews to and why, it’s best to talk to Apple.” Done! But Apple hasn’t responded to requests for comment on this matter.

This afternoon, New York Times tech reviewer David Pogue posted a review of the new stuff. It’s a solid piece of work. But it carries no quotes from a guy trying to wax visionary like his predecessor. And it hit the web late.

Under normal circumstances, that combination of shortcomings would qualify as an embarrassment for the New York Times. Yet if the lack of access is even remotely related to Apple’s dim view of the paper’s investigative reporting, the paper may take pride in losing the hunt for “Mountain Lion.”