By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
January 15, 2009

Getting the kind of information about Steve Jobs’ health that Apple’s (AAPL) investors and customers deserve is tricky, as tech reporters discovered to their peril this week.

The sources in the best position to talk about Jobs’ medical condition — which forced him to announce Wednesday that he taking a six-month medical leave — are his physicians, and they’re prevented by doctor-patient confidentiality from disclosing what they know.

Everybody else is either speculating, spinning or being spun.

Even Jobs’ own statements are suspect. He has issued two e-mail medical dispatches in the past two weeks that are not only vague and lacking in hard medical information, but contradictory — moving in the space of 10 days from a confirmed “simple and straightforward” remedy to health issues that are “more complex” than originally thought.

The best piece of reporting on the Jobs’ health problems is still Peter Elkind’s March 2008 cover story in FortuneThe Trouble with Steve Jobs.” It was Elkind who first reported that Jobs delayed treatment for his pancreatic cancer for nine months while he pursued alternative medicine approaches. And it was Elkind who identified the type of surgery Jobs underwent in August 2004 — a particularly brutal and complex operation called the Whipple procedure — opening the door for other reporters to fill in the blanks. (See here.)

It’s been downhill from there. One low point was the interview Jobs gave Joe Nocera of the New York Times last July in which he called the Times columnist (and former Fortune editor) a “slime bucket” before going off the record to reveal that his health problems went well beyond the “common bug” an Apple spokeswoman had offered as the reason for Jobs’ sudden weight loss last June. (See here.)

Nocera kept Jobs’ remarks out of his piece, but he did report what he and his colleague, John Markoff, had learned independently — that Jobs had told associates that he had a second operation earlier in the year to correct ongoing digestive problems, but that his cancer had not returned. (UPDATE: Nocera posted a new piece today on the Times blog, calling for Apple to come clean.)

This would not be the first time that the mainstream press reported — secondhand, from unnamed sources — that Jobs is cancer-free. Both the
New York Times
and the
Wall Street Journal
did it Thursday, the Times citing two sources “familiar with his medical condition,” the Journal just one.

Note that no one at Apple has ever directly addressed the issue of recurrence. The closest anyone came was the e-mail Jobs sent to his staff in Aug. 2004 informing them that his operation was successful and that he was “cured.” None of Jobs’ subsequent statements have said anything about cancer, one way or the other.

Jobs’ most recent e-mail set off the usual flood of journalistic second guessing (see Techmeme here). The most painful was CNBC correspondent Jim Goldman’s TechCheck column Wednesday.

Goldman had gone out on a limb three weeks earlier, citing “sources inside the company” who assured him that Jobs’ surprise decision to skip Macworld had nothing to do with his health. On Wednesday, he took it all back, calling the latest twist in Jobs’ story “tantamount to fiduciary, ethical and financial whiplash.”

Goldman went on to say that he has known since late last week that there was something wrong with Jobs — based on interviews with two “well known [but unnamed] tech industry executives … very close to Jobs.”

“One said, based on his contact with Jobs personally, that he was in ‘serious denial’ about just how bad the circumstances had become. The other explained to me that he was ‘deeply concerned’ about Jobs, and the sudden lack of communication, the non-return of emails, ignoring chat requests, unreturned phone calls was a strong indication to him that Jobs was in ‘dire’ shape.” (link)

This was quite a turnaround, and it led to perhaps the most embarrassing moment in the whole affair: a live segment on CNBC Wednesday afternoon in which Newsweek‘s Dan Lyons (a.k.a Fake Steve Jobs) confronted Goldman and accused him of “sucking up” to Apple to get access to the company and, as a result, getting “played and punked.” The five-minute segment is the equivalent of a journalistic car wreck — you can’t stop watching it — and has reportedly resulted in Lyons getting banned from CNBC for life (a report that a CNBC spokesman has since denied, although nobody has called Lyons to clear things up).

We’ve pasted the clip — in its entirety — below the fold.

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