Walking with Steve Jobs; How the MSM Sees Protesters; and Bjork on iPad Pirates

It's the Best Media Writing of the Week

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Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs Credit: Tim Wagner

If you were a journalist who knew the man, the way to eulogize Steve Jobs in the days after his death was to recount all the personal chats, long walks and phone calls to your home line that annoyed your wife but couldn't be helped. Whether from Walt Mossberg or David Pogue or even Jon Stewart, these personal reflections were natural ways of dealing with the loss that worked to make someone we're used to seeing only on stage seem less aloof. But the idea that someone as powerful as Jobs needed to work journalists might come as something of a surprise to someone outside that tech hype daisy chain. So these accounts are valuable. But they are also weird.

Yes, it's strange and perhaps telling that Walt Mossberg's thought upon a long walk with a very ill Jobs was that Job was going to keel over and that Mr. Mossberg's own helplessness would result in an inauspicious headline, with the Wall Street Journal tech reviewer hoisted by his own petard. None of the personal stories, however, were more bizarre and complicated than Brian Lam's tale of his relationship with Jobs on his new site, The Wirecutter.

Mr. Lam, a former editor of Gawker-owned gadget site Gizmodo, had corresponded with Jobs for some time before Gizmodo ended up with the scoop of a lifetime, when it got its hands on the iPhone 4 prior to its release. Jobs was a fan of the site; Mr. Lam even shared images of forthcoming redesigns on which Jobs commented, an uncommon relationship between a tech blogger and the CEO of the one of the most valuable companies in the world. But that all began to disintegrate when the Gizmodo team ended up with the phone. Jobs, of course, wanted his baby back, but Mr. Lam wouldn't give it to him without a letter laying claim to the phone, essentially proving that it was an Apple-made device. It is this part of the saga that Mr. Lam regrets and wrote so provocatively about this week. His tone is self-flagellating, calling himself an "asshole" and Jobs "kind" and "beautiful." It's definitely awkward and even invites a cringe or two. Very quietly and with an honesty I can't recall seeing, however, he also brings to life the contradictions of a job that requires you to cover people and things you like and admire.

His post, thick with ethical complexities, should never be confused with a primer for young journalists, but it is an extraordinary document and possibly the most important one in understanding the media's relationship with Steve Jobs.

I will not regret things professionally. The scoop was big. People loved it. If I could do it again, I'd do the first story about the phone again.

But I probably would have given the phone back without asking for the letter. And I would have done the story about the engineer who lost it with more compassion and without naming him. Steve said we'd had our fun and we had the first story but we were being greedy. And he was right. We were. It was sore winning. And we were also being short-sighted. And, sometimes, I wish we never found that phone at all. That is basically the only way this could have been painless. But that 's life. Sometimes there's no easy way out.

The other piece of Steve Jobs-related writing worth reading came from Walt Mossberg, as mentioned above. It couldn't be more different from Mr. Lam's account, coming as it does from the top reviewer at a mainstream publication who never ran afoul of Mr. Jobs. But it is useful as a fuller depiction of how Mr. Jobs interacted with those who were so important in maintaining the Apple brand and establishing his legacy:

After his liver transplant, while he was recuperating at home in Palo Alto, California, Steve invited me over to catch up on industry events that had transpired during his illness. It turned into a three-hour visit, punctuated by a walk to a nearby park that he insisted we take, despite my nervousness about his frail condition.

He explained that he walked each day, and that each day he set a farther goal for himself, and that , today, the neighborhood park was his goal. As we were walking and talking, he suddenly stopped, not looking well. I begged him to return to the house, noting that I didn't know CPR and could visualize the headline: "Helpless Reporter Lets Steve Jobs Die on the Sidewalk."

But he laughed, and refused, and, after a pause, kept heading for the park. We sat on a bench there, talking about life, our families, and our respective illnesses (I had had a heart attack some years earlier). He lectured me about staying healthy. And then we walked back.

Steve Jobs didn't die that day, to my everlasting relief. But now he really is gone, much too young, and it is the world's loss.

I liked a piece by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, published in The Guardian, that contains a bunch of nuggets about the storytelling process. Though published before, it feels particularly relevant on the week we lost Steve Jobs:

Storytelling is inherently dangerous. Consider a traumatic event in your life. Think about how you experienced it. Now think about how you told it to someone a year later. Now think about how you told it for the hundredth time. It's not the same thing. Most people think perspective is a good thing: you can figure out characters arcs, you can apply a moral, you can tell it with understanding and context. But this perspective is a misrepresentation: it's a reconstruction with meaning, and as such bears little resemblance to the event.

The other thing that happens is adjustment. You find out which part of the story works, which part to embellish, which to jettison. You fashion it. Your goal is to be entertaining. This is true for a story told at a dinner party, and it's true for stories told through movies. Don't let anyone tell you what a story is , what it needs to include. As an experiment, write a non-story. It will have a chance of being different.

In other news, Salon's Glenn Greenwald quite expertly tears Andrew Ross Sorkin a new one for his treatment of the Wall Street protests. Mr. Sorkin, a New York Times financial writer and editor, only got around to checking out the protests when asked by the CEO of a bank whether he had to fear for his personal safety. Which is kind of icky. Once there, Mr. Sorkin went into safari mode, only fueling the complaints that the mainstream media has too quickly dismissed the movement. Wrote Mr. Greenwald:

I genuinely wonder whether Sorkin, before descending into the protesting hordes, donned one of those masks popularized in Asia at the height of the SARS epidemic. When visiting strange and exotic cultures, one can never be too careful. Is it any wonder that the severe economic suffering and anxiety pervading American society receives so little attention and concern from establishment media outlets and their stars?


We end with Kevin E.G. Perry's five-part interview with Bjork -- wait, what's that you say? You'll read no more than a three-parter with the Icelandic chanteuse/weirdo? Fine then. Just don't expect to understand the manifold tensions at the bleeding edge of music industry innovation straight from the mouth from an artist who's actually trying to create some new models aesthetically and commercially. Take Biophilia, the new project that 's been released in apps and, of course, in all the old ways. In this part of her interview with Drowned in Sound, she hints about the weird symbiosis between artists and pirates:

As intriguing as Bjork's Biophilia project is , there's something about it that makes me feel slightly uneasy. I think it's to do with the number of times the names 'iPad' and 'iPhone' appear on my press release and particularly with the fact that the Biophilia apps will not be made available on any other format. For someone as fiercely independent as Bjork, who has spent her entire career on indie labels, this seems out of character. I hate to think of Bjork as a corporate shill, but as we all know deep down in the depths of our iSouls, Apple have now unquestionably become The Man.

So this is what I ask her: 'You've talked about the iPad feeling like a return to a punk ethos, where anyone can use it to make their own music. At the same time, iPads are expensive and elitist gadgets. Do you think there is a discord between the technology and the spirit of what you're trying to do?'

"Yeah, for sure, there's definitely another polarity there, a conflict," she replies. "The only solution for me was to somehow be some sort of a 'Kofi Annan' and try and make these two worlds speak to each other."

She pauses and coyly drums her fingers on the table.

"I'm not supposed to say this, probably, but I'm trusting that the pirates out there won't tie their hands behind their back."

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