(Editor's note: To access some of these stories, registration or a subscription may be required. Please check the individual links for the site's policy.) In the grand scheme of things, it's not that the business media talk falsely about what is going on. It's just that they wouldn't recognize a historical pattern if it reared up and bit them in the rear. Granted, the historical pattern with Apple ( AAPL) can be a little confusing because the company tends to do two contradictory things. But since the business media seem thrown by this one-two combination, let The Business Press Maven explain. Ready to take some notes? Here goes: Apple is highly promotional and showy when it comes to unveiling new products. Got that down? Good, because now it's paradox time. When it comes to future earnings, Apple is modest to the point of purposeful understatement. Got that? Irresponsibly promotional. And overly responsible, deadpan restraint. Now let The Business Press Maven rest a moment. Pointing out such contradictions can take a lot out of a guy. I need a cold compress and a moment on my daybed. There. Thank you. Now I need to forge on so we can gain insight from this peculiar pattern. Just a week ago, The Business Press Maven was
uncharacteristically smiley-faced when the business media actually earned their meager living by thinking for themselves when Steve Jobs conjured up P.T. Barnum and tried to sell the world on a pricey phone with poor battery life sold through a distribution system with which Apple is unfamiliar.
Maybe the groovy design will save the day -- if anyone can make it happen, Jobs can -- but the point was his high-profile and theatrical effort to sell a run-of-the-mill product like it would run the table. Again, Jobs may be able to do this. How does your friendly neighborhood Business Press Maven know this? Because there is only one thing that seems to sell better than Apple's products: The company's consistent claims that future earnings won't be so hot. Of course, it's easy to fool all the business media all the time. But what helps in this case is Jobs' dual status as carnival barker for products and somber company spokesman. If you are geared up for the sales job, and then he and other corporate officials start going all conservative on future earnings and revenue, you are apt to take it at face value. But don't you see? It's two sides of the same coin. You are getting played, yo. Which wouldn't be so bad -- if the business media made it clear. Take Mayor Bloomberg's little news outfit -- puh-lease. In a story headlined "Negative Forecast Sends Apple Shares Skidding," Bloomberg led by letting readers know that the company cut forecasts for the current quarter. Not a word about how the company is addicted to cutting forecasts, using it as a market-managing tool. Interestingly enough, Bloomberg ends by letting readers know that Goldman Sachs dutifully cut its forecasts but raised its price target.
Since business journalists either don't have the knowledge base to translate such a transparent move by a Wall Street firm or can't actually enlighten readers about it because they have to write under such strict on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand parameters, let me tell you what this move is called. It's called a "cover your rear." The Business Press Maven is pretty sure that Goldman knows the deal. They look silly if they don't give guidance on the numbers and leave themselves exposed. But if they raise the price target, they are covered. Either way, they can be right even when they are also wrong. CNNMoney.com does the same as Reuters, without the Goldman mention. The headline is a damning: "Apple Drags on Techs" with the subheadline: "Nasdaq composite under pressure as investors eye iPod maker's forecast." No mention of the pattern. Reuters does moderately better
in an article called "Apple Shares Slip as Light Outlook Disappoints." At least it mentions -- though only once and not until the fourth paragraph -- that the company is known for conservative forecasts, although the pattern is not emphasized or spelled out in sufficient detail. It is, on the contrary, dismissed, being legitimized because the conservative outlook "comes amid concerns about Apple's ability to sustain iPod growth, increase Mac sales and maintain profit margins."
Could be. Mac sales, it is true, were slightly disappointing in the just-reported quarter. And The Business Press Maven is worried about the sustainability of iPod growth and profitability. If the iPhone replaces it, I will walk down Wall Street in a sun dress ... while twirling my parasol. But please, let us emphasize several times that Apple makes a habit of toying with expectations. The business media take their modesty too seriously, because it flies in the face of their over-the-top product promotion. Essentially, it's two versions of the same thing: an attempt at manipulating and managing opinion. In addition to mentioning how Apple finesses expectations, how about adding some lively examples? They abound -- even when the company isn't actually touching the numbers. Once, when the company actually raised expectations for a future quarter and spoke with well-deserved pride on the "halo effect" that the iPod was having on other products, they then went on to say repeatedly that their growth was not sustainable. "I don't see the recent growth rates continuing forever," CFO Peter Oppenheimer said. That was almost two years and lots of profits ago.