Are Steve Jobs' Innards Really Any of Our Business?

79px-Steve_Jobs_with_red_shawl_editSo now we know the dark, sinister story: Steve Jobs took someone’s liver in Memphis.

Yes, it’s true! I read it in the Wall Street Journal. After sequestering himself in the haunted, Faulknerian chambers of some abandoned manor in the city of Elvis and the ancient Greeks, Jobs enlisted some accomplices to procure the liver so that the filthy-rich old man might live. According to one accomplice, his prognosis is [ominously tapping fingertips together] “excellent.”

I exaggerate, but only slightly. After reading all the stories that have dominated newsfeeds, Twitterstreams and tech news aggregators, I had to resist the thought that Jobs was some sort of “X-Files” monster who fed off livers to preserve his nefarious life. After all, he belittled Apple’s board. He lied to Wall Street. He cut in line ahead of poorer patients. And so on.

There’s a perverse irony to all this. Jobs waged a long, initially fruitless yet over the decades highly effective PR war painting Microsoft as an evil force in the technology industry. And now, just as he sits atop the shrinking pile of revered business executives, he’s being tarred with the same black brush.

It makes you wonder whether those writing breathless dispatches on someone’s frail health as though they were auditioning for a job as Perez Hilton’s research assistant know anyone with a life-threatening illness. And if they do, if they’d like to see that person’s fight treated like a third-rate reality show. The thin rationalization behind the tech media frenzy has been this: If the CEO that made Apple a stellar success is gravely ill, we need to know.

But of course, as it turns out, we didn’t know. And the only thing that not knowing changed was that Apple’s stock was slightly more volatile for a short period of time. As expected, other Apple executives stood in capably while Jobs was out. The new iPhone didn’t disappoint. And Jobs appears to be back at work.

While we were obsessing over Jobs’ absence, we lost something even more important. We ignored the right of a human being to face a life crisis in private. We forgot what it would feel like to have strangers intrude on an experience that is disorienting, self-defining and unimaginable until it happens.

Yes, there’s the whole investor disclosure issue. Apple should have made clear early on that its CEO was ill and would take an open-ended leave. But can you imagine another CEO for whom investors and journalists would clamor to know what illness, what treatment, what chance of death within the year? And honestly, after the past year do investors really have any anger left to hurl at executives who keep secrets for health reasons, and not to cover up fraud?

Some disclosure here: I’ve never owned any Apple shares, but Steve Jobs donated some early Apple computers to my college, and I doubt I’d have finished my thesis if he hadn’t. Also, while on one hand I like Steve Jobs, on the other hand, I don’t. He’s made my life easier as a consumer (iPods, Macs) but harder as a journalist (silencing leakers, opaque metrics). He’s an inspiration, but let’s face it, he’s also kind of a jerk.

The point of this disclosure is not, however, to make clear that I don’t have a hidden agenda when it comes to Apple. It’s to illustrate how if you say something provocative, good or bad, about the company or its CEO, you instantaneously and inevitably invite questions about your motives. OK then, in the name of full disclosure, here’s my motive with this post: I have never faced a life-threatening illness, but several people close to me have.

And while I hate to say it, I honestly think most of the coverage I’ve read about Jobs’ illness has less to do with him or Apple and more to do with others drawing attention to themselves.