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Only CNBC shocked at Apple's media rules

Apple's policy of banning laptops from overflow rooms at its annual meeting is definitely paranoid, but should come as no surprise to veteran company followers.

The sometimes bizarre rules produced by the inherent contradiction between Apple's culture of secrecy and its need for media attention are nothing new.
James Martin/CNET Networks

Few reporters who cover Apple should be surprised to learn that it is a rather secretive and controlling company.

Most of us who regularly follow Apple are accustomed to rolling our eyes and chuckling at the bizarre restrictions company representatives sheepishly try to enforce at its events, such as requiring an escort for reporters who want to walk 100 yards away from the press room down a huge open hallway to use the bathroom at the Moscone Center, lest they ask Steve Jobs what he thinks of the Kindle, or something. It was therefore a bit surprising Wednesday to read CNBC's Jim Goldman loudly complaining about the fact that Apple doesn't allow laptops into its annual meeting, held earlier Wednesday at the company's headquarters in Cupertino, Calif.

Goldman's right about one thing: in this day and age, it's pretty silly for Apple to pretend that a public event can be held away from the reach of the Internet. Indeed, two shareholders published text-message updates of the meeting, which although quickly snapped up by the tech media hungry for any scrap of information related to Apple merely confirmed one thing most business reporters know about annual meetings: they are usually very boring.

But the ban on computers is nothing new for Apple: this is the third year I've attended an Apple annual meeting, and each year they've had the same restrictions in place spelled out for all attendees in the proxy statement that announces the date of the meeting. Similar bans on "electronic devices" have been in place since at least 2004, and before then, wireless mobile computing was relatively rare among the press corps.

Attendees at the meeting were herded into two lines just inside Apple's executive briefing center: one for shareholders, and one for the media. All guests were required to sign in with Apple, pass through a metal detector just like at an airport, and check any cameras, laptops, and phones with security after a bag search.

Several people managed to keep their phones, but Apple representatives in the overflow room--where media members were herded to watch the meeting on closed-circuit television--roamed the aisles asking anyone texting or checking e-mail on the sly to refrain from using those devices while the meeting was going on.

Those restrictions, while very silly, didn't prevent the media from thoroughly covering the event, which Goldman is alleging. "More like a 'prevent' than 'event,' I suppose," he wrote.

Rather, the restrictions prevented the media from live-blogging the event, which Goldman seems to think is the apex of transparent reporting but which in many cases produces a frenzied burst of typing and incomplete sentences that don't necessarily deliver a clear picture of what is happening. Does the public really want to read breathless minute-by-minute updates of Apple general counsel Dan Cooperman asking attendees to second a proposed motion?

Veteran reporters (Goldman has been in this business since I was in junior high) are well acquainted with the art of the call-in, where breaking news can be relayed quickly and clearly to a colleague at home base over that old-fashioned but still relevant device, the telephone.

If anything had actually happened at the event, there was nothing preventing reporters from doing just that within a matter of a minute following the news, and quickly getting that information out to the public. In fact, a bank of old-fashioned telephones was located just outside the overflow room where Goldman sat two rows behind me, watching the meeting.

Unlike other companies that covet press attention, Apple does not go out of its way to make it easy for reporters to cover the company. It never has, or at least it hasn't in the company's rise to the top of the tech industry over the past decade.

The fact that this is only now dawning on Goldman says an awful lot about the rare level of access to Apple to which he and CNBC have been accustomed over the past several years, access which prompted him to declare quite forcefully two months ago that rumors of Steve Jobs' ill health were insidious market manipulation when, in fact, they were true. Goldman's demeanor toward Apple seems to have soured since he was dressed down on his own network by Dan Lyons, the Newsweek columnist best known as the author of the Fake Steve Jobs blog, regarding his reporting on Jobs' health.

Are Apple's restrictions on computers at the annual meeting odd and excessive? Absolutely. Most big public companies provide a Webcast of their annual events so far-flung shareholders who have already voted their shares can watch.

But they are nothing new, and only delay, not prevent, reporters from filing stories that nothing happened at the meeting. And they are only in place for this one event a year; after initially balking at the idea of live-blogging at its regular press events--which were touted by Apple COO Tim Cook as a competitive advantage during Wednesday's annual meeting--Apple now bathes its press events in Wi-Fi and recently started providing power strips for the rows of live-bloggers. That might seem like a minor accommodation to other companies that provide lavish food, drink, and entertainment at their events to help draw press attention, but this is an idea that's only about a year old for Apple.

It seems as long as the famously private Steve Jobs is in charge, there are always going to be weird rules governing Apple's love-hate relationship with the media. Apple knows it needs media attention to help promote its products, but wants to prevent reporters from getting too close to the company and its executives lest they discover the company's Next Big Thing (or, even worse, the lack thereof).

It's frustrating, but challenging, and simply part of the game of covering Apple.