Michael Bloomberg is a case study in the reputational value of thirty-five or so billion dollars. His foray into gun control apparently stalled by the National Rifle Association’s vise-like grip on US legislators, the former New York City mayor has announced that he will now return to running the massive media and technology corporation that bears his name.
Bloomberg News employs many fine journalists who rightfully take pride in their work, but it has a rather odd rule—for journalists, that is—when it comes to its own actions. As stated by Matthew Winkler, the company’s editor in chief, Bloomberg News does not cover itself, because doing so is “an inherent conflict of interest and no outlet does it well.” Instead, when other news organizations cover its activities, Bloomberg News employees are advised to “summarize what their stories say.”
Winkler’s assertion may be correct, but his conclusion is the wrong one. Yes, it is impossible for any news outlet—including The Nation—to cover itself “well,” but that doesn’t mean there’s no value in trying. Spurred by leaks to The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, The New York Times eventually did a respectable job covering the firing of executive editor Jill Abramson last spring. Media institutions are powerful actors in our lives, so they deserve all the coverage they can get, however imperfect.
Moreover, Bloomberg’s company is kind of a special case because of its famously cult-like atmosphere. Bloomberg News pays better than most, but its employees are understandably terrified of appearing disloyal in any way, and so they not only refuse to speak to reporters at other outlets, but many are loath to risk “summarizing” reports about the company from elsewhere in the media. Excluding extraordinary events, a veritable Cone of Silence envelops almost everything that happens within its walls.
One such extraordinary event happened last year, however, as a result of the company’s decision to censor its coverage of China in order to protect its business interests there. Thanks to energetic reporting by the Times, the Columbia Journalism Review and the Financial Times, interested readers could glean a reasonably clear picture of this decidedly unpretty story. A brief summary: the Chinese government repeatedly warned reporters and editors from The New York Times and Bloomberg News to lay off the articles about corruption at the top levels of the Chinese government. The Times stood firm; Bloomberg News completely caved and even fired one of its top reporters. As Peter T. Grauer, the chairman of parent company Bloomberg LP, let slip in a speech to the Asia Society in Hong Kong, the organization “should have rethought” those stories that “wander” from straight business news, “stories about the local business and economic environment,” given the value of its China market. Do you think that consumers who depend on Bloomberg News ever received a full and fair “summary” of this story? And do you think this is the only time that the company’s business interests came into conflict with its journalistic conscience?
It’s instructive to note that the value of Bloomberg’s billions transcends his reputation as a mere media titan. During his twelve years as mayor, the Times’s Ginia Bellafante pointed out, “Even his critics conceded that Mr. Bloomberg was a manager’s manager, a one-man walking McKinsey Corporation, and that his lust for data and streamlining left various systems and operations undeniably improved.”
Alas, today an entirely different picture is emerging. Forget, for a moment, the sucking up to Russian billionaires and Goldman Sachs and the police-state tactics used against protesters at the Republican convention and Occupy Wall Street, let alone his donations to the rejectionist national GOP. Instead, let’s take a look at the managerial stuff we’re supposed to admire.
For instance, despite the billions of dollars in appropriations after Superstorm Sandy’s devastation in October 2012, the city under Bloomberg hadn’t managed to rebuild a single dwelling before he left office in December 2013. According to a lengthy Times investigation based on documents, data analysis and dozens of interviews, “the standstill…was largely attributable to the design and execution of the program by the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.”
And it wasn’t just Sandy. New York City’s poverty rate rose from 18.5 percent in 2002, when Bloomberg assumed office, to 21 percent in 2011. The city’s middle class also took a hit, as median family income fell in the same period. Meanwhile, despite a massive housing crisis, the city experienced a nearly 40 percent drop from 2002 to 2011 in the number of affordable apartments for families with an income at twice the federal poverty line, according to James Parrott of the Fiscal Policy Institute. And according to New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, the city’s Housing Authority was characterized by “incompetence and lack of accountability” during this time. It made virtually no efforts to address the steep decline in federal funding for the upkeep of its buildings and even failed to disburse $1 billion in unused federal funds that were earmarked for repairs.
Since the progressive Bill de Blasio won his landslide victory in November, prestigious pundits like the Times’s Maureen Dowd and unctuous gossip writers like the Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove have used the illusion of Bloomberg’s efficiency like a bludgeon to beat back the new mayor’s moves to address economic inequality. And there’s simply no question that Bloomberg was a great mayor for celebrity-smitten journalists. His East Side mansion served as a terrific party palace for the right kind of invitees, to say nothing of those massive convention and correspondents’ dinner shindigs with the ice sculptures and the endlessly flowing champagne. For those still paying attention, however, Bloomberg’s reputation as mayor is melting like the Wicked Witch of the West. Let’s see how his news service “summarizes” that story.