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Apple spin machine 1, reporters 0

On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal ran, as its top story in the weekend print edition, a piece about how Steve Jobs was still in charge of key decisions at Apple, and that story was re-worded and rebroadcast across the Web all weekend long. Well, let’s have a look a the first two paragraphs, emphasis mine:

More than three months into a medical leave from Apple Inc., Chief Executive Steve Jobs remains closely involved in key aspects of running the company, say people familiar with the matter.

Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook runs the day-to-day operations at Apple, these people say. But Mr. Jobs has continued to work on the company’s most important strategies and products from home, they say. He regularly reviews products and product plans, and was particularly involved in the user interface of the new iPhone operating system that Apple unveiled last month, these people say.

The story goes on in essentially that same vein. Mr. Jobs does not comment. A spokesman who is named says Steve Jobs “continues to look forward to returning to Apple at the end of June.” And then the story itself points out that Apple’s stock price tends to suffer when shareholders are feeling uncertain about whether Jobs is at the helm.

Hey, you know what happened today, the first Monday after the story appeared? Apple’s stock was up almost a full percent. Also today, analyst Shaw Wu raised his target price for Apple’s shares, three weeks after he publicly downplayed Apple’s stock potential. The rest of the major analysts followed suit, further helping to buoy the share price … and all of this happened a little over a week before Apple’s earnings report, scheduled for April 22. Handy.

Now, here’s what I know about Apple’s PR machine, having been on the receiving end of it off and on for nigh on 10 years now. It’s relentless, and it’s quick on the draw. This is a company that insists on a 90-minute phone briefing for editors who are going to be reviewing the Apple iLife suite. They’re so good at the overwhelming PR assault that their phone briefing talking points even show up in USA Today reviews and the like (it’s the line about how iPhoto’s face recognition technology is “still in its infancy” — a pretty convenient way of excusing any flaws the software might have). Apple PR will call you on the carpet for long, impassioned briefings if a reviewed product gets anything less than, say, an 8. They regularly ask reporters and reviewers to change ratings, change stories, and take down reviews and reports that they dislike. Ask any reporter who covers the company regularly: this is a well-oiled, aggressive PR machine and it will hammer and hammer and hammer and hammer in hopes that you’ll eventually say what it wants you to say.

So, look at this week’s news. If Shaw Wu took Apple stock off his “Focus List,” effectively declaring a vote of no confidence in it three weeks ago, you can bet that Apple’s PR machine hit the phones, and hit them hard. Suddenly, Wu is bullish on iPhone 3.0, the Snow Leopard launch, and “[t]he potential for a new form factor, perhaps Apple’s answer to the netbook, with a large screen iPod touch-Mac hybrid.” You think he’s just reading Mac Rumors? Other analysts are suddenly warming (again) to the potential of the iPhone App Store. And the Wall Street Journal just happens to get a couple of anonymous insiders to dish about how Steve Jobs is sitting at home in his own personal Apple Situation Room, pulling all the strings at the company (subtext: everything is fine). No. Come on. Apple insiders do not randomly dish.

It’s not a crime for a company to have a good PR machine. It’s working for Apple and it has for a long time. But this is a nation that is, at the moment, finding itself in quite a pickle because we blindly believed everything that companies were telling us. So, if we’re trying to be skeptical about, say, large financial institutions and their outlandish and/or reassuring claims, shouldn’t we also cast the same critical eye on a convenient flood of information that does little other than improve Apple’s stock price a week before they have to answer to angry and worried shareholders? Or, hey, maybe the Wall Street Journal just trying to boost the Nasdaq on purpose. You know, to help the economy.

Journalists are supposed to be watchdogs. Let’s watch some dogs, shall we?

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