By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
July 6, 2009

“Next February,” writes David Carr in Monday’s
New York Times
, “when Steven P. Jobs — knock on wood — does his big reveal at Macworld, the geegaw people will most want to see probably won’t be on display.”

So begins a piece by one of my favorite business columnists on a subject dear to my heart — Wall Street’s and the tech world’s obsession with the health of Apple’s AAPL CEO and, in particular, the “geegaws” of this story: Steve Jobs’ troubled pancreas and borrowed liver.

Carr is a smart and plugged-in observer of digital media, and once he gets over the glaring problem with his first sentence — Apple has already announced that it won’t be doing any more Macworlds, with or without Steve Jobs — he offers a useful perspective on what he calls our “unhealthy fixation” with Jobs’ illness: that of a fellow cancer survivor.

From that perspective — one shared by 10 million Americans, according to Carr — the “keening on the blogs, in the news media and in the investment community” for full disclosure from Apple about the state of Jobs’ health after his 2004 surgery for pancreatic cancer and more recent liver transplant, looks less like a legitimate financial concern and more like “the prurience … that drives most people’s interest in the illness of others,” especially celebrities.

“The same sense of entitlement that leads many to think that it is right and proper to suck the marrow from Michael Jackson’s bones pertains to the living, as well,” writes Carr. “There is an expectation that if you are both famous and sick, you will open up a vein and let the blood flow toward everyone. Farrah Fawcett invited everyone into her sickroom as she died of anal cancer and received the faux adoration of millions in return.”

That most of the sources Carr interviewed for his column — especially fellow Timesman Joe Nocera — felt there were legitimate reasons for asking whether Steve Jobs would be returning as scheduled from his medical leave, didn’t seem to faze the columnist. Carr kept calling until he reached someone who agreed with his thesis. “Everybody knows that Steve has a grave illness,” the futurist Paul Saffo helpfully volunteered. “This is sleazy entertainment, a sideshow.”

But sideshows, as Carr points out, are what the modern media do best. And Steve Jobs is a celebrity, he writes, with a particularly high-touch relationship with consumers:

“He sits at their fingertips, in their ears, connects them with friends … [And] because he seems to know us so well, or at least our needs, we like to think we know him back, even though nothing could be further from the truth. He is as inscrutable as Buddha and reportedly no barrel of monkeys to be around.”

Besides, Carr concludes, “Steve Jobs doesn’t want your love. He wants you to buy his stuff.”

See also:

Photo: Getty Images

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