Why Apple CEO Tim Cook's Sexual Identity Isn't -- or Shouldn't Be -- News

Last Updated Aug 29, 2011 4:35 PM EDT

It was sad to see Felix Salmon at Reuters argue that his coverage of new Apple (AAPL) CEO Tim Cook supposed homosexuality was the ethically correct path. Not because sexuality is a topic that should be hidden under a pre-Vatican II cassock, but because Salmon's argument was riddled with holes that showed just how the press often portrays self-indulgence as "duty."

Salmon came across the information via a tweet by Financial Times correspondent Tim Bradshaw, who got it from technology writer Matt Hickey -- who, for all I know, may have picked it up from Nicholas Jackson at the Atlantic. Quite the round robin of buzz. (Although, as Salmon notes, Gawker actually wrote about Cook's sexuality back in January. Unfortunately, the site also decided to talk about what types of guys he was into. When you decide to make someone's sexuality an issue, inappropriate and tasteless are often just around the corner.)

Serving community, whether you want to or not
Jackson argued last Thursday that Cook should come out as gay for the greater good:

Just one problem there. Cook is one of those at the high levels who is afraid to publicly confirm his homosexuality. And he won't be a role model for the LGBT community until he confirms the rumors and comes out of the glass closet he is assumed to be living in.

Apple is widely regarded as a gay-friendly company (a survey of consumers conducted a few years ago found that Apple was ranked as one of the most gay-friendly companies, second only to the Bravo network) and those at the top, when asked, said they would continue to support Cook if he came out. But they also worry that a gay executive could harm the perception of Apple's brand, according to Queerty. Would an openly gay CEO -- not a bad product, not a flawed program -- hurt the house that Jobs built?

How does Queerty know that executives worry about brand perception? No way to tell; it's a flat statement. Maybe it took the information from that January Gawker item.

Jackson states, without any reporting proof or reference to a source, that Cook is "afraid to publicly confirm his homosexuality." Of course, just maybe Cook thinks it's no one's damn business, and that he has no duty to act as anyone's role model.

The ethics of voyeuristic gossip
Salmon goes even further than Jackson, essentially arguing that the business and technology press is remiss in not writing about Cook being gay -- even though, remember, the man himself hasn't ever commented on it. So Salmon's post is essentially a dispatch from the far-off Land of Assumption:

Back then, there were no public-company CEOs on Out magazine's gay power list; this year, Cook topped the list even before he became CEO of Apple. Keeping his sexuality a secret is no longer an option. And so the press shouldn't treat it as though it's something to be avoided at all costs. There's no ethical dilemma when it comes to reporting on Cook's sexuality: rather, the ethical dilemma comes in not reporting it, thereby perpetuating the idea that there's some kind of stigma associated with being gay. Yes, the stigma does still exist in much of society. But it's not the job of the press to perpetuate it. Quite the opposite.
Time to cut through some claptrap and look at what is actually being said apart from impassioned and artful rhetoric:
  • The writers think that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people deserve role models.
  • The writers also think that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people have suffered from discrimination.
  • CEOs at large companies can be powerful role models.
  • Cook, in particular, shows that "a super-smart, powerful and non-effeminate man who shows that being gay is no obstacle to any career you might want," as Salmon put it.
  • It is a fact that Cook is gay, even though neither Cook nor Apple has ever commented on it. (Like Apple would confirm that sun rose in the morning if anyone asked.)
  • Reporters who do not mention Cook's presumed sexual identity are unethical because they preserve prejudice.
When logic breaks down
To make such an argument is to immediately tumble down a slippery slope. These journalists have essentially reduced themselves to the following syllogism:
  1. You cannot complete describe a person without accurate reference to his or her sexuality.
  2. To not mention someone's sexuality is to assume that he or she is straight.
  3. Therefore, any reporting on gay people that doesn't mention their sexuality is incomplete and false.
There are a number of immediate problems with such a chain of reasoning. It requires reporters to mention anything that would be part of completely describing a person. Where does it end? Ethnic background? Education? Political beliefs? Tastes in entertainment? Hobbies? You could reasonably argue that not mentioning an important aspect of someone's life leaves an incomplete picture, but in that sense, there is no complete picture possible, even in approximation, unless you're working on a full biography.

Everything or nothing
That leaves an argument that sexuality is so overwhelmingly more important than any other aspect of someone's life that it must receive mention. However, sexuality isn't a single position point on a continuum of straight to gay. Sexual identity takes into account what people enjoy, how often they are active, preferences, and many other things.

Should a general profile of Cook note that he might be gay? Maybe, if the writer would be just as likely to mention whether a subject was straight, enjoyed various forms of kink, or abstained from sexual activity. But it's hardly necessary for most standard business coverage.

Rationalizing personal agendas
However, these writers aren't talking about sexuality. They are talking about sexual identity in a highly constrained and regimented way -- using it as a means to an end, effectively, rather than as some neutral piece of information that reporters might otherwise overlook. (Otherwise why get into the question of role models?)

The effect is to classify people and, ultimately, to use them for a social and political purpose -- even though, as Salmon directly admits, Cook's sexual identity isn't anyone else's business:

But it's worth asking who exactly we're protecting here. Tim Cook hasn't complained about coverage of his sexuality, but a lot of straight people who don't know him seem to be very upset about it. It seems a bit like the old attitude of "I don't care what consenting adults do in private, just so long as they don't stick it in my face."
To presume that someone who doesn't address his private life is perfectly OK with having it opened to public scrutiny is ludicrous. What if Cook is simply too uncomfortable to make an objection? Or is that no longer a possible reaction for him, given that influential bloggers like Salmon have now put the story "in play"?

No, there's nothing ethical about outing a figure like Cook. If Cook wants to make an issue of his sexuality, or if it somehow becomes part of a story involving his position in Apple, then it's all fair game. Until that point, though, writers like Salmon should stop reporting assumption as fact and using people like Cook as tools.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.