Mike Bloomberg Is Forcing Us to Question the Editorial Independence of BloombergPhoto by Drew Angerer/Getty Politics Features Michael Bloomberg
This is 100% about the motivations of Mike Bloomberg and 0% about that of the journalists employed at Bloomberg. We all have bosses, and when a direct order comes down from the top, you either follow it or you find a new job. That’s just the reality of capitalism that we all have to accept in order to survive in this world. Bloomberg is one of the best publications around and consistently produces good journalism. Now, in the 2020 Democratic primary, they are pledging to avoid their reputation as a source for deep reporting, and are instead going to stick to more horse-race style coverage, as editor-in-chief John Micklethwait wrote in a memo to staff outlining the new policy:
We will continue our tradition of not investigating Mike (and his family and foundation) and we will extend the same policy to his rivals in the Democratic primaries.
Kathy Kiely, Bloomberg’s former politics director who resigned in 2016 over Michael Bloomberg’s potential entry into the race and her inability to cover him aggressively for Bloomberg’s own business, said that this decision will “relegate his political writers to stenography journalism…it’s not satisfying for journalists and it’s not satisfying for readers. I think people will go elsewhere for in-depth political coverage.”
Former editor of Bloomberg Businessweek, Megan Murphy, also criticized the new policy.
It is truly staggering that any editor would put their name on a memo that bars an army of unbelievably talented reporters and editors from covering massive, crucial aspects of one of the defining elections of our time. Staggering.
— Megan Murphy (@meganmurp) November 24, 2019
Final thought. Reporters and editors at @business are some of the hardest working in the industry. It is not an easy place. They deserve a hell of a lot better treatment than this. But I know they will continue to bust their asses to do great work, because that’s journalism.
— Megan Murphy (@meganmurp) November 25, 2019
For the record, I was presenting with a near identical “memo” during his 2016 flirtation. And I was very clear that I would quit the second it ever saw the light of day.
— Megan Murphy (@meganmurp) November 24, 2019
In addition to completely neutering their 2020 political coverage (for now), Bloomberg is suspending their editorial board that typically speaks for the entire organization, and its top members are going to go work for the former mayor’s campaign. This abdication of journalistic responsibility as it pertains to its owner is nothing new, as the longstanding policy is that Bloomberg will not investigate Bloomberg’s wealth, personal life, family, etc. While this rule could possibly be justifiable in general, the moment its owner decides to run for the most powerful position in the world, it instantly exposes the contradiction at the heart of its coverage, and immediately undercuts Bloomberg’s credibility. What we just learned is that it became a less respected journalistic organization the moment that its editor-in-chief hit “send” on that memo.
None of this gives the impression that Bloomberg has 100% editorial independence, and implies that no matter how much good work the publication does, its owner views it as a tool to further his own ends first, and a journalistic outlet second. In fact, according to Michael Bloomberg in a radio interview last year, Bloomberg does not have editorial independence, as he said “Quite honestly, I don’t want all the reporters I’m paying to write a bad story about me,” and “I don’t want them to be independent.”
Further exposing the hypocrisy at the base of this decision, Bloomberg will not cease its investigative reporting on the Republican candidate(s) for president, just the Democratic ones. This self-serving strategy becomes even more obvious when you compare it to in-depth reporting other billionaire-owned publications have done on their billionaire owners. For example, The Washington Post has published scathing and deeply reported exposes about Jeff Bezos’s company, Amazon, and Margaret Sullivan, WaPo’s media columnist, wrote that “I never experienced an iota of editorial meddling from Buffalo News chairman and owner Warren Buffett when both the newsroom and the editorial board reported to me for almost 13 years.”
There’s a process to handle clear conflicts of interests like this, and it’s a position that prestigious outlets like the New York Times have eliminated in recent years in favor of letting Twitter and the like highlight their mistakes for them: a public editor. The position is exactly what it sounds like: an editor whose job it is to vet their own organization for the public’s benefit. If Bloomberg had any issues with Bloomberg’s coverage that were rooted in fact, the public editor position could easily corroborate that. But instead of adding accountability for himself, he has undercut his organization and eliminated journalistic layers instead.
Additionally, if you think Trump potentially divesting from his businesses upon winning the presidency could have been messy, just imagine what it would be like for an actual billionaire to do it. Is Bloomberg not allowed to cover President Michael Bloomberg if he makes it that far? If so, doesn’t that reveal the farce at the base of this decision? Why is it not okay to report on presidential candidate Bloomberg, but it’s fine reporting on President Bloomberg? Or is Bloomberg not allowed to report on the Bloomberg presidency? There is no logical way to explain this away. Yet again, it’s exactly what it looks like: a billionaire in the United States is leveraging his immense power to shield himself from public accountability.
Jacob Weindling is a writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.