Why is Tim Cook’s Personal Life News?

My colleague Mark Wilson takes on the task I failed to (but should have) in commentary: “Apple’s Tim Cook is gay—the fact it needs to be announced shows what’s wrong in tech“. The CEO’s admission, in a Bloomberg-Businessweek opinion piece, isn’t surprising. The news media’s overglowing reaction is the shocker, as Mark observes: “Websites have practically fallen over themselves to heap their praise on the announcement”.

What? Are bloggers or reporters afraid they might appear to be homophobic if neglecting to add their voice to the echo chamber? Many news writers called Tim Cook’s announcement courageous. This morning, in chat, I told Mark: “Your response to it is hugely courageous”. He chose not to join the echo chamber and even to risk recriminations for rightly questioning why so much news space was given to Apple’s CEO. 

Echo Chamber
I considered writing something quite like Mark’s opinion but my Thursday got away from me (dealing with an injury sustained in a parking lot that will be a future post). Reading the first news stories I wondered why Tim Cook’s coming out was such a big deal. Had he attested “I’m proud to be heterosexual”, would that be a news story? (Okay it might where people thought he was gay.)

Mark is right by wondering why the proclamation is news while acknowledging the odd position of his response:

Tech blogs, newspapers, computing websites, social media have lit up at Cook’s editorial. I realize there is a slight irony in writing a news article proclaiming that the very thing being referred to may not be newsworthy.

Lots of people are gay. Hell, I live in one of San Diego’s gayest neighborhoods. People come out every day, and with greater courage than Tim Cook, and it’s not news. Granted, most aren’t doing so in Bloomberg Businessweek.

My criticism isn’t about sexual orientation but news value, and how making his announcement news demeans American homosexuals; everyone rushing to write about Tim Cook’s proclamation is testimony to the current state of equality—or, at the least, perception about it. Because if all things—eh, people—were equal, there would be no news here.

My opinion could be swayed if more news stories looked deeper than the majority do. Few deal with the societal or gender issues—the reasons the announcement might be news—while many top or lead with quote “I’m proud to be gay”. Among them: BBC, CNET, Gizmodo, Mashable, USA Today, The Verge, and Washington Post. The same quote is everywhere, bellowing an echo chamber of sameness, excerpting from the opinion piece and offering little more. How many times must readers be told that Apple’s CEO “proud to be gay?”

Private Matters
Tim Cook writes about the difficulty opening up his private life, which in my analysis juxtapositions Steve Jobs being so private. To a fault. The CEO’s sexual orientation is nobody’s business, meaning it’s purely personal to disclose this information.

By contrast, Apple’s cofounder had an obligation to open up one aspect of his private life. Steve Jobs’ illness wasn’t a private matter, not as the CEO of a public company. Why? Because shareholders own the company, not the board of directors or CEO. The chief executive is accountable to them, and his or her health materially can affect performance.

That said, some shareholders may be concerned that because of Tim Cook’s coming out, Apple sales could suffer, particularly in regions of the world where homosexuality is culturally, politically, or legally opposed.

Strangely, his public admission and shareholder priorities are conflicting values. Public companies’ first moral objective is profit—to make money for shareholders.

It’s one of the main reasons I oppose companies being considered individuals under U.S. law. Because those companies that are public don’t share the same moral agenda as the people who run them. When profit matters most—and that’s what shareholders demand to see every three months—the values that bind societies are laid waste.

Companies often act in ways that wouldn’t be tolerated of people, yet they are treated as individuals under the law and, quite literally, are allowed to commit murder without being punished or in any meaningful way held accountable.

No matter what you think about homosexuals, Tim Cook’s proclamation, equality, and the mores that bind us or separate us, there looms, unrequited, an ethical inequality—the conflicting moral agendas of people like you and me and public companies like Apple.