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Oct. 31, 2014, 2:10 p.m.

From rumor to out: Tim Cook reminds us that “unpublishable” facts don’t live in a vacuum online

The Apple CEO confirmed what some websites had reported years ago — the fragmented lens of online media giving new meaning to the idea of an “open secret.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook’s public acknowledgment that he’s gay is a welcome moment for dozens of reasons. Cook becomes the first out CEO of a Fortune 500 company, at the most successful company in the world, proving (as if it needed to be proved) that industry leaders can have any gender or orientation. Cook’s push for antidiscrimination and equal treatment laws now has an added personal dimension and clear stake for his audiences, whether in public or in a legislature. Cook can stand tall as a role model for LGBT youth everywhere in the world, for whom knowing the CEO of Apple is gay and proud to admit it in public can make it easier to affirm their own identities.

And last, and probably least, an extremely awkward chapter of journalism, in which Cook’s sexuality was a kind of reverse Schrödinger’s Cat, can come to a close. It absolutely was well known that Cook was gay. But this fact could alternately be ignored, acknowledged, or left drifting in ambiguity, depending on the publication. Now the waveform has collapsed; description matches reality, and publications can take this shambling, uncomfortable, unwinnable dance to another public figure.

Backstory

As far as I’ve been able to determine, the first person to write about Tim Cook being gay was Owen Thomas for Gawker’s Valleywag in 2008. At this time, Cook had already served a stint as interim CEO during Steve Jobs’ treatment for liver cancer; with Jobs again appearing to be ill, Cook was the heir apparent and subject to extra interest, so Thomas’s “Is Apple COO Tim Cook Gay?” made a splash.

Adam Lashinsky had just published a profile of Cook in Fortune where Apple’s COO was described as unknown, “a blank slate,” “intensely private,” and a lifelong bachelor. Thomas, who had some information from off-the-record sources, read between the lines of Lashinsky’s profile:

“When he isn’t working he tends to be in the gym, on a hiking trail, or riding his bike.” Come on. What is this — a Fortune profile, or a men-seeking-men personals ad in Craigslist?

He posed Cook’s sexuality as an open question, filed under the tag “rumormonger.”

At that time, there were rumors about Cook in the press, but largely off the record and single-source — not enough to run as fact, even in what is sometimes thought of as the Wild West days of Valleywag — so speculation was all that was possible.

That changed in January 2011, when Ryan Tate published a profile of Cook titled “Meet Apple’s New Boss, The Most Powerful Gay Man in Silicon Valley.” Tate cited “two well-placed sources” who confirmed the Cook was gay, but more importantly, was able to say Cook’s sexual orientation was well-known among Apple’s leadership and had “been the topic of at least some discussion within the company.”

One tech executive who has spoken to multiple Apple management veterans about Cook was told executives there would support Cook if he publicly acknowledged his orientation, and even would encourage him to do so as he steps up his leadership role, but that they also had concerns about whether his coming out would impact the perception of the Apple brand.

This established the framework that would shape stories on Cook’s personal life for the next four years, until this week: Cook was openly gay in all but the most public contexts. By this time, Steve Jobs had again taken medical leave, making Cook interim CEO. Apple had overtaken Microsoft to become the most valuable tech company in the world, and was on its way to being the largest publicly traded company in any business. This was due to the success of the iPhone and now the iPad, which powered to Apple’s transformation from a U.S.-centric computer maker to a dominant global brand. Cook played a crucial role in the transformation; China had been a special project of his, both as manufacturing center and as an emerging market. Even if the U.S. were ready for an openly gay CEO — and that was a proposition that hadn’t yet been tested — it wasn’t clear what effect a public announcement would have on Apple’s perception in the rest of the world.

However, now there was pressure from LGBT advocates for Cook to make a public statement. Out magazine pressed the issue in April 2011, naming Cook No. 1 in its list of the 50 most powerful gay and lesbian people in America. Newspapers and magazines were reluctant to discuss it without an announcement from Cook himself, keeping with their general policy not to “out” public figures. So were most technology news sites and enthusiast blogs.

More curiously, there was a vocal movement arguing that publications should not discuss Cook’s sexuality. Macworld’s “Macalope” column sarcastically attacked Tate and Gawker: “[I]f there’s one thing that people need to know, it’s the sexual orientation of all the executives of the company that makes their phone or their computer…This is beyond trolling for hits. It’s discriminatory and it’s a childish invasion of someone’s privacy.” Blogger Joe Clark fired back, writing “Computer press so liberal it puts gays back in closet”:

When you tell us it’s wrong to report on gay public figures, you are telling gays not to come out of the closet and journalists not to report the truth. (What you’re telling us as gay journalists is even worse.) When you insist being gay couldn’t possibly matter less, what you actually insist is that the subject never be brought up in the first place.

In a profile of Cook, The New York Times’ Miguel Helft established the pattern for the paper of record: directly or indirectly note “rumors” that Cook was gay, make a pro forma effort to confirm or deny those rumors, then plead ignorance. The profile itself merely called Cook single. He did not interview Cook or have cooperation from Apple; Helft told Clark that “some of his former close colleagues, who[m] I did interview, told me they never saw him with a male or female partner and that even they didn’t know his sexual orientation.”

Helft told Clark that “[W]e generally do not report things that we cannot confirm ourselves.” This was one common reason given to avoid discussing Cook’s sexuality. “It’s none of our business” was another; “We don’t cover those issues” was a third. Other writers and editors had a moral and political reluctance to report or comment on Cook’s sexuality before he himself came out.

Another Times Cook profile, this past summer, referenced his tweets and writing supporting gay rights and quoted him saying, in a speech, “I have seen, and I have experienced, many other types of discrimination.” “Apple declined to say what he meant by the reference to discrimination he experienced,” the Times reported.

A commenter writing under the name Ivy noted the walkaround: “This is 2014, not the 1950’s. Either don’t mention it at all, or be straightforward and say that it’s pretty widely known that Tim Cook is gay. Cook does not deny anything himself either. But to say it’s ‘unknown’ what Cook was talking about when he said he experienced ‘discrimination’ because he wasn’t in the ‘majority’ is just such old-fashioned, annoying journalism. You might as well have called him a ‘confirmed bachelor’ and left it at that, instead of playing cute with the issue.” But another commenter, Henry, said he found “it refreshing that Mr. Cook’s sexual orientation was not mentioned. From the article’s standpoint, I don’t find it germane to the topic.” Scott L added: “Further, he has never publicly said what his orientation is, so the NY Times has no basis for any such statement. Many people are mentioned in this article and that type of personal information isn’t given for any of them, and rightly so.”

Or just listen to the awkward silence in this exchange on CNBC in June, when a panelist let this slip: “I think Tim Cook is fairly open about the fact that he’s gay at the head of Apple, isn’t he?”

Choices, or the absence of choices

I had to face these issues in my position as a technology reporter. In 2011, I wrote an essay for Wired titled “Why Tim Cook is the best choice to run Apple.” I mentioned his logistics skills, the trust that Steve Jobs had shown in him, and his remarkable stewardship of the Mac division through a transition to Intel architectures, a massive economic downturn, and a shift away from PCs to mobile devices, which I felt (and still feel) hasn’t gotten enough press attention. I also refer to more personal characteristics — his patience, his vision, his cool judgment. I did not write about Cook being gay.

My position then was that it wasn’t up to me or anyone else to tell anyone how and when to go fully public with his or her sexuality. Nobody can tell you how to come out. I also felt that we didn’t know Cook’s full story, which was more than his sexual identity, whether or not he was partnered, and so forth. It seemed in our world, saturated by Apple Kremlinology, that Cook being gay was an open secret. But we didn’t know who among his friends and family may still not know, and I was reluctant to be the one to tell them. At the same time, I desperately wished that he would make a public statement, for all the reasons that I feel his statement now is important. As I wrote to my friend and fellow journalist Steve Silberman at the time, “This is important to me: I really don’t want to write ‘Tim Cook is gay!’ if he’s been outed & hasn’t owned it.”

Wired at that time had had no policy on how or whether to report on whether someone is gay. I don’t know whether there was any strategic reason, legal, moral, or otherwise, to avoid having that discussion. I think it was partly because with very few rules about what could and should be reported, much was left to the individual judgment of editors and writers. My suspicion is that many outlets defaulted to the status quo and didn’t report on Cook’s sexuality in large part just to avoid having to make that decision.

A couple years later, I wrote a long article on Cook for a magazine. By that time, my feelings had changed: Cook, now CEO, had become a public advocate for antidiscrimination laws, making it one of the few things outside of Apple and Auburn University football that he commented on publicly. He gave speeches where he referred to discrimination that he had himself witnessed and experienced. It seemed as though Cook was on the path to making a public statement about his sexuality — and at a minimum, he was making his own identity a more public one.

I wanted to know what policy, if any, the publication (for which I was working freelance) had on referring to a public figure’s unconfirmed sexual identity. I explained the situation — that Tim Cook was widely known to be gay, but had yet to make a public acknowledgment. I explained the history of coverage, the history of CEOs refusing to publicly acknowledge that they were gay while serving as CEOs, etc. I told them that I didn’t have any new reporting of my own that further confirmed what had been documented in Gawker’s stories and which everyone knew. I also told them that I felt that Tim Cook being gay and not acknowledging this publicly two years after taking over for Steve Jobs was a significant fact about his tenure as Apple CEO, as important as any of Apple’s new products, services, or scandals. I also told them that I wouldn’t write about this unless it was clear that I had a green light from the publication, who would ultimately have to be responsible for it.

I wrote the editor-in-chief, managing editor, and editors at the magazine. They never replied to any of these requests. We discussed the Apple profile, its due date, its word count — everything but what I felt was the most important part of the article. Chagrined, I wrote a pretty uninteresting essay on Apple and Cook, mostly focused on Apple’s new products. It was a day late. The magazine rightly killed it.

Next time

This is my worry: We won’t have a story exactly like Tim Cook’s again. The odds of a CEO at the largest, most scrutinized company in the world publicly announcing that he or she is gay a second time are infinitesimal. But the odds of having a story similar to Tim Cook’s in the near future — where a major public figure is playing Schrödinger’s cat with his or her sexual identity — are almost certain.

We have to come to grips with two changes. First, online news sites’ attitudes toward this issue are wildly divergent from newspapers, magazines, and other traditional news outlets. They are also wildly divergent from one another. None of these, however, exist in a vacuum. The Times newspaper story that elides Tim Cook’s sexuality is read in conjunction with (and as a response to) the Gawker profile that identifies him as gay. It’s a mistake for any news publication to pretend that just because a fact cannot be published by your outlet, that it is not known. This is a broader truth of the contemporary news landscape that applies much more widely than to stories about gay identity — this is merely an especially illustrative example.

Second, the attitude towards public discussion of sexuality, and specifically the gay “closet,” is changing. It also varies widely in specific cases. Compare the case of Tim Cook with that of Grantland’s Dr. V, where a reporter’s uncovering of a source’s transgender identity may have played a role in her suicide — a story that many readers (and, soon after, Grantland’s editors) felt was handled wrongly.

News organizations need to continually discuss their policies with experts and community representatives, to try to balance questions and accuracy with questions of harm, and to make certain that they aren’t operating on assumptions that are outdated, naive, uncritical, or uninformed. Last, it’s important for reporters and editors and publishers to have these conversations — to make sure that whatever it is they choose to do is the best expression of their publication’s values and point of view, that it’s deliberate and legitimate. Putting our heads in the sand, pretending that the story may go away or resolve itself for us, is simply no longer an option.

Photo of Tim Cook at the Apple Watch announcement by Andy Ihnatko used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 31, 2014, 2:10 p.m.
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