This is, of course, very much not the first time Cook has been asked about his sexuality—either before or after he came out last year. But connecting Cook’s experience to that of “people who are in hardship around the world” was a newer way to frame the question. Perhaps even a Colbertian one.
And: “It did,” Cook replied. He mentioned that his desk at Apple is decorated with a photo of Robert Kennedy and another of Dr. King. He thinks he has a responsibility not just to Apple’s investors and users, he suggested, but to justice itself. In this case, “It became so clear to me that kids were getting bullied in school,” Cook said.
Kids were getting basically discriminated against, kids were even being disclaimed by their own parents. And that I needed to do something. And where I valued my privacy significantly, I felt that I was valuing it too far above what I could do for other people. And so I wanted to tell everyone my truth.
But Colbert had more questions about the “people who are in hardship” in the world. “Many people have criticized Apple in the past about your supply chain and about the way your products are manufactured around the world,” Colbert commented, leading into a question that didn’t explicitly name the Foxconn factory, but strongly implied it.
Cook replied that Apple brings “college classes to our manufacturing plants” to help educate the plants’ workers. He replied that the company tries to educate those workers, too, teaching them about—a vaguely Orwellian phrase—“the rights as we see them.” He argued that Apple had high standards for what those rights actually entail.
He summed it up:
Just like our products are meant to give tools to everyone to do better things, to empower them to do things they couldn’t do otherwise, we want to leave the world better than we found it. And for us that means focusing on education, focusing on the environment, focusing on human rights. And so we put a lot of ourselves into these things.
On the one hand, of course, this was the typical stuff of PR-approved talking points. It was the CEO of Apple—whose public appearances, whether they take place on the WWDC stage or in the Ed Sullivan Theater, have the power to move markets—performing in a way that served himself, and his investors, and his company. Nothing he said was entirely new or extremely revelatory. Nor was anything, really, that he was asked.
What was remarkable, though, was the journalistic bent of Colbert’s questions. And what was even more remarkable than that was the brief conversation’s focus on values. This talk about human rights. This talk about Cook as a role model. This talk about charity. This sense that Apple isn’t just a company or a manufacturer of technology products, but also a steward of something broader and deeper.
Which goes without saying, sure, in the sense that every technology—every business—has an internalized morality. Apple’s, because of its products’ popularity, is simply more visible than most. But we don’t hear a lot about that stuff on late-night, network television, for the most part. Late-night comedy usually treats its audiences—perhaps tired from long days at work, perhaps dozing on the couch, right before bed—to wacky stories designed to make their tellers look charming. It often serves up goofy skits designed to make their performers look relatable. It traffics, for the most part, in fluff. It pretty much relies on it.