Just a few months ago, Bloomberg News was faced with a potential crisis after Wall Street clients complained—publicly—that Bloomberg news staffers were inappropriately using data available on Bloomberg LP terminals for news gathering.
The revelations raised fears that Bloomberg’s business and editorial operations, which traditionally work together more closely than is the norm among older news organizations, were getting a little too close for comfort. Clients believed they had a right to some expectations of privacy about when, how, and how often they used Bloomberg machines, and that the news side was getting a little too aggressive in its pursuit of the news.
The affair’s faint—very faint—resemblance to News Corp.’s full-blown criminal hacking—scandal helped to fuel a media tsunami that, even at the time, seemed out of proportion to the problem.
Bloomberg LP adroitly handled the crisis with a blitz of internal investigations, candid op-eds, and PR mea culpas, and, as I wrote, effectively put the mini-scandal to bed.
Now, though, Bloomberg faces something entirely different.
Edward Wong in the Times uncorked a blockbuster that claims Bloomberg killed an investigative story that detailed the hidden financial ties between China’s wealthiest tycoon and the families of top Chinese leaders. (The Times piece claims a second article, about the children of senior Chinese officials employed by foreign banks, was also “declared dead,” according to its sources.)
The article quotes four “Bloomberg employees who spoke in some detail about the episodes on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs,” as well they might.
The lead reporters on the unpublished tycoon story were Michael Forsythe and Shai Oster, who had previously done prize-winning work in 2012 on the wealth of China’s ruling families (stories that some at Bloomberg believed deserved a Pulitzer more than a series on the same topic by the Times, which did win).
The tycoon story, the Times says, had been vetted and approved by top Bloomberg editors, Laurie Hays and Jonathan Kaufman, and seemed on track. Then on a conference call late last month, top editor Matthew Winkler told them the stories “would not be published”:
In the call late last month, Mr. Winkler defended his decision, comparing it to the self-censorship by foreign news bureaus trying to preserve their ability to report inside Nazi-era Germany, according to Bloomberg employees familiar with the discussion.
“He said, ‘If we run the story, we’ll be kicked out of China,’ ” one of the employees said. Less than a week later, a second article, about the children of senior Chinese officials employed by foreign banks, was also declared dead, employees said.
Bloomberg has flatly denied that the stories were killed and that it “postponed” the stories for any reasons other than journalistic ones. Via The Wrap:
“It is absolutely false that we postponed these stories due to external pressure,” the company said in a statement. “We are disappointed that they chose to publish a piece that claims otherwise.”
Winkler and Hays also denied the premise of the story to the Times.
Now the FT’s Demetri Sevastopulo chimes in with additional details including emails from Hays and Kaufman to the reporting team praising the work and indicating that the tycoon story was solid and on track:
On September 18, Laurie Hays, one of Bloomberg’s top editors in New York, wrote an email to the reporters in Hong Kong, which said the latest version of the story was “almost there” and that once she and other editors, including managing editor Jonathan Kaufman, had taken a close read, they would review it with the company’s lawyers.
Nine days later, Mr Kaufman emailed the reporters to say the story was “terrific”. In the email, which was obtained by the FT, he wrote: “The story is terrific. I am in awe of the way you tracked down and deciphered the financial holdings and the players. It’s a real revelation. Looking forward to pushing it up the line.”
A couple of things: First, the details of the Times and FT accounts ring true. The Times says, for instance, that Bloomberg editors, in justifying their decision not to run the year-long project, told the reporters they had “no smoking gun,” and that the story didn’t advance the 2012 series. Both may be true, but it should be understood that these are catchall reasons that can and have been used down through the ages at news organizations to justify not running something. That is to say, Bloomberg’s official account, both during the internal discussions and now in public discourse, that the tycoon story “wasn’t ready” is so vague as to be unpersuasive.