Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
Last July, a group called the Coalition for Competition in Media wrote a letter to two key House subcommittee chairs on Capitol Hill, pleading for help in stopping the then-pending $30 billion megamerger of Comcast and NBC Universal. The group identified itself as “a coalition of public interest organizations, unions, small and minority media companies and independent programmers,” and said the merger was “fundamentally threatening to the public interest.” That may well have been a sound contention, and any reader might have thought the letter—part of an extensive PR and lobbying campaign—was distributed by a grassroots consumer organization. The letter was signed by the members of the coalition, including the media conglomerate Bloomberg LP. What the letter did not say is that Bloomberg LP was the driving force behind the PR campaign, and the Coalition for Competition in Media was conceived, funded and staffed by lobbyists for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $7 billion-per-year media company.
At the same time that Bloomberg, the politician, seeks a stage larger than City Hall—helping, for example, to found the political group “No Labels” late last year, and imploring national Democrats and Republicans to put aside party politics—his business empire continues to expand aggressively as well. Though Bloomberg doesn’t run the day-to-day affairs of Bloomberg LP, he still owns almost all the shares, handpicks the firm’s managers, talks with them as much as he feels he needs to, and therefore imposes his own will on the firm when he likes. (New York’s ineffectual Conflicts of Interest Board limited but never fully defined the mayor’s role at the company he founded: the board allows him to “maintain the type of involvement that he believes is consistent with his being the majority shareholder.”) A spokesman for Mayor Bloomberg declined to comment for this article.
Given Bloomberg’s push for a national platform, any intersections between his corporation’s interests and the government warrant scrutiny. And Bloomberg LP runs an effective and sophisticated lobbying shop to promote the firm’s interests with federal agencies and Congress. It’s striking how, in a fully synergistic Bloomberg style, a news organization, a financial information company and a team of lobbyists often seem to be working in smooth concert.
This process was on vivid display as Bloomberg LP faced the prospect of the Comcast-NBC merger. A postmortem of the company’s vigorous efforts to protect its interests in response to that challenge reveals the ease with which the Bloomberg empire navigates and manipulates Washington.
From the beginning, Bloomberg executives saw potential problems as well as exceptional opportunities in the Comcast-NBC deal, a massive merger of a huge cable and Internet company with a TV network, which sought Federal Communications Commission approval. To understand the stakes for Bloomberg LP in this deal requires a quick behind-the-scenes glimpse at the company and how it functions.
Almost all of Bloomberg LP’s $7 billion yearly revenue still comes from the Bloomberg terminals—the desktop software with floods of financial data that is ubiquitous in Wall Street firms, despite its $20,000-a-year price tag. “Eight-seven percent of the company’s revenue is [Bloomberg] terminal revenue,” says Douglas Taylor, who follows the company and the financial data industry for Burton Taylor International Consulting.
But increasingly, the company has been extending its journalism enterprises. “There is an aggressive expansion going on in the consumer side of the Bloomberg operation,” according to Andrew Schwartzman, senior vice president of the Media Access Project. Consider the breadth of the Bloomberg journalism empire: the company bought BusinessWeek in 2009 as the magazine was losing money, and has transformed it into Bloomberg Businessweek. That comes in addition to the high-end glossy monthly business magazine Bloomberg Markets. At the same time, the company produces Bloomberg Radio on XM, Sirius and WBBR. It also distributes Bloomberg News as a wire service with local and national content on its website. Recently, the company hired ex–New York Times editor David Shipley and ex–State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin to oversee a new operation: Bloomberg View, where Michael Bloomberg’s political, philosophical and business opinions will be distilled in editorials that can be distributed across all his news platforms.
But the major play for Bloomberg LP, the potential crown jewel of the giant journalism enterprise, is Bloomberg Television, which airs on cable. The company hired Andy Lack, former president of NBC News, in 2008, in an effort to rejuvenate the channel. There was a massive purge, in which Bloomberg laid off 100 workers, but the studios were redesigned, new talent was hired, and it now appears to be on the upswing. Bloomberg executives dream they will one day compete directly with NBC’s influential CNBC. Right now the channel is barely watched, analysts say, but Bloomberg has been pouring money into it.
One oddity of the Bloomberg news empire is that without exception, all of its journalistic operations lose money, and they always have, according to sources with knowledge of the company. The news business at Bloomberg is heavily subsidized by the rest of the company—paid for by those terminals on the desks at Wall Street firms.
It almost seems as if, for Michael Bloomberg, the profits don’t matter much in that sector. There are various possible explanations for this mindset. “I think Michael Bloomberg did something that was very shrewd and very intelligent,” explains Taylor. “I think his approach was, ‘I will accept losses in my media business,’ because he considers it advertising rather than a profit center.” Taylor’s theory is that Bloomberg’s news operations are a marketing effort rather than a core function of the overall business. “He saw it as a place to generate mind share,” Taylor says, “to generate advertising and recognition in the industry.” “Mind share” is the current term of art for brand awareness in the marketplace. If he is right, expanding mind share not only advances the company’s larger business interests but heightens Michael Bloomberg’s national profile.
Although for now the journalism side of the house remains subsidized by other operations, Bloomberg TV could one day churn a profit on its own. At first “it was always regarded as just sort of one of Mike’s vanity projects,” a company veteran told me, “and so it was sort of left alone.” But now some believe it could be a cash cow. “It could produce a quarter-billion dollars a year,” the source said, “if they could figure out how to get people to watch it!”
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Which brings us back to the Comcast-NBC deal. Bloomberg was concerned about one thing: once Comcast purchased NBC Universal, would it favor CNBC over Bloomberg’s financial news channel? And what could that do to the expansion plans for Bloomberg TV? Bloomberg’s solution to the problem was “neighborhooding.” The concept involves grouping similar channels together so viewers with an interest can play with their remotes and find what they are looking for. A parallel is the way diamond shops can be found on Forty-seventh Street in Manhattan, or the way bail bondsmen are located next to one another near courthouses.
But that plan would work only if the FCC forced Comcast and NBC to cooperate. If not, the executives at Bloomberg figured Comcast would try to punish independent channels by making them hard to find. And so Bloomberg’s lobbying of the FCC began.
The company’s tactical goal was to block the Comcast-NBC deal unless the government required the merged company to put Bloomberg TV on a station next to CNBC. Schwartzman explains that it was an extremely “sophisticated” operation. (Greg Babyak, Bloomberg’s in-house lobbyist, referred The Nation’s call for information to Bloomberg’s new top PR official in Washington, Sarah Feinberg, who left the Obama administration to take the position in March 2010. The company declined to comment.)
One of the first moves Bloomberg LP made as it laid out its game plan against Comcast was to hire Kevin Martin, who retired as head of the FCC in 2009, as its lawyer for the issue. Martin, who works for the lobbying and legal powerhouse Patton Boggs, is not listed as lobbyist for Bloomberg because he performs legal work, but others at Patton Boggs were registered as lobbyists, and Bloomberg LP has paid those lobbyists $340,000 since last spring. Patton Boggs, of course, is one of the largest and most effective firms on K Street.
The other big gun in Bloomberg’s lobbying arsenal was Glover Park Group. This is a growing powerhouse in Washington, a Democratic shop on K Street with excellent contacts in the Obama administration and the Democratic establishment. Among its luminaries are Joe Lockhart and Dee Dee Myers. Glover Park was partially owned by Howard Wolfson, the Democratic political operative and former Hillary Clinton spokesman who helped Mayor Bloomberg win his historic 2009 third campaign for mayor in New York City. Wolfson, like other top campaign workers, was paid a $400,000 bonus by the grateful mayor after the vote, and a subsidiary of Wolfson’s firm made $490,000 in the campaign.
Then, once he was reinaugurated in January 2010, Bloomberg installed Wolfson as a deputy mayor. (The strategist was seen to be replacing Deputy Mayor Kevin Sheekey, a Bloomberg loyalist who was rotated out of City Hall and back to the private Bloomberg LP by then.) By the time Bloomberg LP hired Glover Park, Wolfson had sold his shares, he tells The Nation. “I divested fully when I entered city government,” Wolfson says. His financial disclosures reveal that his stake was worth more than half a million dollars.
To sum it up: seven months after Wolfson went to work for Mayor Bloomberg’s administration in New York, Wolfson’s former company, Glover Park Group, registered as a lobbyist for Bloomberg’s company in Washington.
And it was Glover Park Group that set up that Coalition for Competition in Media on Bloomberg’s behalf. Operating out of Glover Park Group’s office, the “coalition” had a website registered on a Portuguese island. (Glover Park says the domain was registered that way to protect against spammers.) A diverse group of two dozen organizations, linked only by a shared interest in a democratic media, lent their names to the effort. Bloomberg LP was listed as just one of them, but it was the source of all the funds and its lobbyists did all the organizing and wrote the letters and press releases, which it would then run by coalition members for their input. The antifeminist group Concerned Women for America signed on, for example, as did its political nemesis, the National Organization for Women (NOW). The Sports Fans Coalition also joined up, alongside the Writers Guild of America. Some of the groups were obscure, and some were well-known.
Glover Park Group assigned powerful, politically connected talent to the Bloomberg effort. For example, Christina Reynolds had just left Obama’s White House, where she had been the director of media affairs for a just over a year. She quickly became one of the contacts for the coalition.
The group’s letters, all written by Glover Park Group, were plastered all around Washington. “As a diverse group of 24 public interest groups and private organizations,” the group wrote to President Obama, for example, “we urge your administration to ensure this unprecedented combination receives the scrutiny that it deserves.”
Coalition building is a normal feature of Washington’s influence efforts. Still, Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, says this case stands out. “I would say that it is clever and somewhat deceptive because the assembly of the groups is mainly meant to further Bloomberg’s interest.” Strictly speaking, she points out, it is not a front group, but it is similar. “It is like a front group because the name of the group and the superficial appearance obscure the primary intent, which is to further this company’s corporate interest.”
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In the jockeying over the Comcast-NBC merger, Bloomberg corporate synergy also came into play. On October 19, Bloomberg Businessweek published a well-researched story exposing how Comcast had boosted its donations to politicians as it pushed for the merger. Reviewing Federal Election Commission records, Bloomberg reporters found that Comcast’s political action committee had increased its donations to politicians by more than $400,000, to a staggering $1.1 million.
Comcast’s massive lobbying and PR campaign to push for FCC approval stood in direct tension with Bloomberg LP’s own lobbying and PR campaign around the merger.
Bloomberg’s lobbyists quickly told the coalition members that it intended “to capitalize on the great Business Week/Bloomberg story this morning,” according to an e-mail obtained by The Nation from a member of the coalition. The lobbyists wrote, “We’d like to flag it for reporters with a quick quote and topper.” The coalition’s press statement said of the article, “These donations…are part of a calculated attempt to buy approval for a merger that offers too many dangers for consumers and media organizations.”
There is no evidence that the Bloomberg reporters wrote the story as part of a companywide strategy or were assigned the story because of corporate influence. A Bloomberg spokeswoman says there is an “impenetrable firewall” between editorial decisions and the other parts of the company. Still, it was a captivating confluence of forces: Glover Park Group, paid by Bloomberg LP, and acting with the coalition it had created on Bloomberg’s behalf, was on the warpath to distribute a news story Bloomberg Businessweek had written about the issue that was the most important pending matter in Washington for the Bloomberg brand.
Glover Park Group, for its part, readily concedes that it organized the coalition and that Bloomberg was its paying client but insists that the coalition was not technically a lobbying operation. “Any lobbying work that’s done is registered and fully disclosed,” a spokesman wrote in an e-mail to The Nation. “The Coalition never did any lobbying.” Here is the way to parse that: Senate lobbying definitions make it clear that lobbying includes “any oral or written communication” with White House or Congressional officials. But material “that is distributed and made available to the public” gets an exemption.
In a subsequent statement to The Nation after a request for clarification, a Glover Park spokesman said the coalition letters and other releases “are simply public communications.”
In January the FCC finally ruled on the Comcast-NBC merger. The commissioners approved it, with a few conditions. Most of the public interest groups that battled the deal saw it as a loss. Free Press, a nonprofit group that works to reform the media and that also belonged to Glover Park’s coalition, called the FCC decision a “devastating loss.” NOW tells The Nation, “We do feel disappointed.”
But Bloomberg’s lobbying had paid off. The FCC ruled that Comcast would have to “neighborhood” channels together, in the exact same language Bloomberg and its lobbyists had pushed for. “Whenever Comcast carries news channels near each other, it will have to include all independent news channels in all of these neighborhoods,” the FCC announced. “Bloomberg,” says the Media Access Project’s Schwartzman, a member of Bloomberg’s coalition, “got what it wanted.” Bloomberg LP’s president, Daniel Doctoroff, who had worked as a deputy mayor in Bloomberg’s administration until late 2007, put out a press release in celebration: “The FCC has taken strong action to preserve independent news programming, and protect competitors against discrimination.” “Bloomberg TV a winner in Comcast-NBC deal” was the headline on Politico.
Corie Wright, policy counsel for Free Press, defended Bloomberg and the coalition in an interview with The Nation. “To say that Bloomberg got what it wanted at the expense of the interests of the other groups in the coalition, I don’t think that’s the case.” Still, the fact is that Bloomberg LP, the company that funded the “coalition,” scored in the end, and the other members didn’t.
Michael Bloomberg’s company is now getting into federal policy in an even more powerful way: it has launched an information service about political influence that wealthy DC players must pay for. It is called simply Bloomberg Government, and it caters to lobbyists, government officials and federal contractors. “Finding the right path through Washington’s maze of regulations, legislation and spending trends can boost your business strategy,” according to the website. “Let Bloomberg Government be your guide.” It promises the inside dope for Beltway insiders who depend on it: “We give you the headlines, players, financials, spending and more, defining and clarifying the complex intersection of government and business.”