In a live TV segment of CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" on Friday, co-anchor Simon Hobbs caused a kerfuffle when he inadvertently "outed" Apple CEO Tim Cook as being openly gay.
The gaffe came during a discussion with New York Times columnist and CNBC contributor James Stewart, who was on the show to talk up his latest think piece dealing with corporate culture and gay executives.
Specifically, Stewart told "Squawk" anchor Carl Quintanilla that his most recent column focuses on former BP chief John Browne, who recently wrote a book dealing with the "tortured life" he led as a closeted gay CEO. Browne resigned from his post at the huge multinational oil and gas company in 2007 after being outed by a tabloid.
Stewart said he was surprised to learn that Browne is the first executive of a Fortune 500 or FTSE 100 company to publicly acknowledge that they are gay. The column explores why, in spite of civil rights advances, a stigma appears to exist at such high levels of business.
"I just found it very, very fascinating," Stewart said. "Of course, there are gay CEOs in major companies, and I reached out to many them. I got an extremely cool reception — not one would allow to be named in the column."
Then Hobbs jumped in.
"I think Tim Cook is open about the fact he's gay at the head of Apple, isn't he," Hobbs asked. Following a stifling silence from the panel, and a disparaging shake of the head from Stewart, the anchor tried to recover. "Oh, dear, was that an error? I thought not."
The irony of Hobbs' ill-timed mistake was not lost on co-anchor David Faber, who said, "Wow, I think you just...yeah."
Listening closely, Hobbs can be heard just under the prattle of his co-anchors trying to cover for the slip, saying, "I think he's very open about it."
While Cook speaks somewhat frankly about Apple, he is notoriously guarded when it comes to his private life.
Speculation as to Cook's sexual orientation has been bandied about — a profile from Valleywag went so far as to call Cook the "most powerful gay man in Silicon Valley" — but the Apple chief has never "come out" publicly. Perhaps the closest thing to an acknowledgement was a speech Cook gave in December when he accepted a lifetime achievement award from his alma mater Auburn University. In it, he alluded to discrimination from his past, which was "rooted in fear of people that were different than the majority."
That Hobbs' comment — and executives' reluctance to be named in Stewart's column — created such a flap speaks to the current cultural climate of the corporate world, even for industries that pride themselves on being progressive. Apple itself has on multiple occasions shown support for sexual equality: contributing $100,000 to fight California's gay marriage ban in 2008; publicly applauding a U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriages in 2013; and asking Arizona's governor to veto a bill intended to legalize discrimination against gays and lesbians.
As for Cook, Stewart chose not to offer remarks on what is clearly speculation.
"I don't want to comment on anybody who might or might not be," Stewart said. "I'm not going to out anybody."