I don’t like gossip, and normally I wouldn’t stoop to the level of commenting on the National Enquirer’s claims that Steve Jobs has six weeks to live.
But it seems to me that a legitimate journalist’s opinion might interest someone. As someone who worked for a daily newspaper in 1996-97, I have a little bit of perspective on that.
I’m sure the first question you’re asking is whether I believe The Enquirer. Prior to the whole John Edwards scandal, I probably would have dismissed it all. In light of Edwards, I’m less likely to just dismiss it out of hand. But you don’t have to look hard to find instances of the Enquirer being wrong recently, either.
I have to admit that prior to John Edwards, I paid minimal attention to that particular publication. I don’t know that anyone really knew or cared whether they just made up what they print. Everyone just assumed they did.
The Edwards story really brought to light a second major difference between the Enquirer and any other publication. Mainstream publications don’t pay sources. (They barely pay writers, so why should they pay sources?) The Enquirer did pay sources to get that story, so they got it before anybody else did.
Presumably, they paid somebody to get the Jobs story.
Now, here’s the problem with paying sources. If I pay you to talk to me, most likely you’re going to want to make sure you tell me something that was worth what I paid you. If you don’t think the truth is juicy enough to warrant what I paid you, you might embellish things a little. Or a lot.
Something you need to keep in mind is that I spent a significant amount of my time in the newsroom reading press releases and taking phone calls from people wanting me to write a story about their cause, organization, or event. They were more than willing to talk to me for free.
I don’t doubt that someone tipped the Enquirer off, and I don’t doubt that they paid for that story. It’s a valuable story. It’s an extremely valuable story if it’s actually true.
I’m interested in who took the photograph. Did the source provide the photograph, or did the source tell the publication where Jobs was going to be and when, and a staff photographer take it?
Time, when citing the Enquirer story, took issue with the doctor whose opinion they published. Time noted that the doctor the Enquirer quoted didn’t specialize in cancer. But then they got a similar opinion from a doctor who does. I suspect that’s general information that my son’s pediatrician would know. We are, after all, talking about a diagnosis based on a photograph. I don’t think any doctor is going to go beyond general information based on that.
As part of my daily job, I get asked to speculate on things I can’t closely examine pretty frequently. And that’s what they get from me: general information that anyone else with my job description would probably know.
Then again, less than 18 hours after I first read the story, I’m seeing doctors who are willing to say they wouldn’t make that kind of an estimate even after one exam, let alone from a photograph.
That doesn’t surprise me either. You’re going to go with the source that causes the biggest stir, so of course The Enquirer is going to go with the guy who says Jobs has six weeks to live. If they’d been able to find someone willing to say he had even less than that, they probably would have printed that. And now that the story’s out, contradicting that claim makes the big splash. The stronger the contradiction, the better.
I know from experience that you don’t get readers by printing stories with bland quotes in them.
Give Time credit for checking the doctor’s credentials and getting another opinion. Something else I wish they’d done is get the opinion of a Time staff photographer or graphic artist about the photograph itself. How confident are they that it’s actually Steve Jobs in the photograph? And does the photograph appear to be altered in any way?
There’s one other thing to think about. The cover suggests that the Enquirer’s staff isn’t all that confident in the story. The death of Steve Jobs would be one of the biggest stories of the year. If you’re going to predict that, and you’re confident about it, it’s going to be the biggest headline on the cover. The biggest billing on this cover goes to “Hollywood Out of Control.” Is there ever a week that there aren’t at least a couple of Hollywood celebrities out of control?
This probably would be the biggest story they’ll report this year, and they’re using it as a warm-up act for a throwaway story.
I’d be a lot more inclined to believe the story if I thought they believed it themselves.