RBG, Steve Jobs, Cancer, and the Public’s Right to Know

Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks about her work and gender equality during a panel discussion at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, Tuesday, July 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

In the absence of facts, or anything in the way of investigative reporting to bring us facts, sometimes a little conjecture is called for. As we watch Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on her long decline, I’m reminded of another American figure of immense power with similar public-yet-barely-acknowledged health issues: Apple’s late co-founder and CEO, Steve Jobs.

Jobs passed away in 2011 after a series of health problems, starting in 2004 with pancreatic cancer — the same cancer that struck RBG in 2009. Jobs admitted he’d had surgery to remove the tumor, but neglected to mention that he’d wasted months of valuable time on non-traditional remedies. Executive Vice President Tim Cook temporarily took the reins as acting CEO, an action which Apple failed to immediately disclose. Jobs appeared to be healthy in his public appearances for the next few years, but in 2008 he began to lose weight at an alarming pace. Apple Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer called Jobs’s health “a private matter,” and tried to leave things at that.

A few months later in January of 2009, Jobs admitted that he was being treated for “a hormone imbalance,” but in reality, his situation was far more dire. Not even two weeks later, Jobs announced another medical leave, saying that his problem was “more complex” than he’d previously said. In 2009, Jobs received a liver transplant, a fact about which the company again tried to maintain silence. Two years and a couple more medical leaves later, Jobs passed away. Neither he nor his company was ever fully forthright about his health problems, and as a result, the tech blogosphere was awash in speculation for years. As CEO of a rapidly growing, publicly held company, shareholders had a right to know more than Apple let on.

I looked up the half-forgotten timeline of Jobs’ public-yet-private years-long decline after being shown a series of tweets from an anonymous user with the Twitter handle “au ng.” Some of what he says is pure speculation, but given Ginsburg’s serious disinterest in being forthright with the American people, and the media’s seeming acquiescence to her wishes, speculation is all we have right now. For what it’s worth, I found au ng’s tweets to be interesting throughout, and sometimes compelling.

Ng’s political angles are pure speculation, such as this one going to the motives of RBG’s medical team: “Their goal 3 months ago appeared to be not for the cure, but for stretching her functional lifespan to as close to 2020 summer as possible, by which time confirming her replacement would become more politically challenging.” That kind of statement I’m going to dismiss out of hand. Not because ng is necessarily wrong, but because they just don’t know the facts. I suspect few, if any, outside RBG’s inner circle do know.

But tweets like this pair make ng sound well-informed on the subject of pancreatic cancer, and perhaps right on the money in Ginsburg’s particular case:

Then there are informed observations like this one, which the mainstream media ought to present, but won’t.

Is it wrong to indulge in such conjecture so publicly? Perhaps. But it’s also perfectly reasonable — or at least, to be expected — that people do so when the media won’t ask and Ginsburg won’t tell.

Steve Jobs and Apple owed shareholders a much more forthright explanation of the CEO’s health woes. In fact, if the company hadn’t been enjoying its iPod- and iPhone-fueled growth explosion, shareholders might even have sued.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg occupies one of nine seats on the nation’s highest court. If she’s too ill to serve, the American people should know that. If she’s hanging on for purely political reasons during a presidential campaign that could shape the future of the court, the American people should know that, too. And if the 88-year-old three-time cancer survivor with all the other health issues cropping up really is just fine, then she should tell us so and put a stop to all the speculation.

In the meantime, the silence is deafening.