Being Michael Bloomberg

Newsweek knows the mayor better than he knows himself

Newsweek’s Jon Meacham stretched New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg out on the couch for a lengthy profile for this week’s cover story and came away understanding that Bloomberg’s lifelong sense of not belonging or feeling different has driven him to succeed.

But what do you do when the subject of your newsmag cover story repeatedly shoots down the neat
(if mundane) narrative on which you are hoping to hang your piece?

Try, try again. And then—use it anyway.

Watch Meacham float his theory before Bloomberg in hopes of getting the mayor’s buy-in:

I asked Bloomberg whether a sense of insecurity in the broader world—the prospect that there might be [anti-Semitic] people like the developer, or the kid he had the fight with, or the hotel clerk out there—helped explain his drive to succeed. He demurred…

Meacham’s second attempt:

I pressed again: do you think the potential feeling of being different, or seen as different, is part of why you want to succeed? [Said Bloomberg:] ‘You know, it may be nice for your story for me to say that I feel different, but I don’t …’

And, take three:

But did you, back then? ‘It would be nice for your story if I tell you that I did. I don’t remember. I just have never seen in my mind any differences…’

And yet. Meacham refuses to let go of his “Bloomberg-as-outsider” thesis, recasting it slightly further along in the piece:

[Bloomberg is someone who] may say he neither felt nor feels different, but whose life experience clearly shows that he understands things that can divide. That he wants to overcome such divisions of religion, race and class is a tribute to his determination to make the most, and the best, of everything.

(Bloomberg may say my analysis of how he feels is wrong, but I know that it’s right(ish), I spent hours coming up with it in advance of interviewing the man, and so I’m going to go ahead and use it anyhow.)

Now, I’m not suggesting that a reporter’s subject must sign off on whatever narrative or thesis the reporter has in mind, but it’s sort of funny (awkward-funny) to watch Meacham insist that he knows how Bloomberg feels even as Bloomberg continues to reject Meacham’s analysis (if the shoe doesn’t fit, force it!).

In any case, when there are sixteen people actually in the presidential race right now, why is Newsweek lending its cover to the candidacy of someone who isn’t? It allows Meacham (and other reporters who’ve written similar stuff) to fantasize about how Bloomberg’s entry into the contest could shake things up: “Whom would Bloomberg hurt most? Could he craft a centrist message…and spend so much money promoting it in major media markets that he could take a plurality of the popular vote?” “Political porn,” in Meacham’s words.

That’s “political porn?” Too bad reporters don’t get off on issue stories.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.