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?