the audit

Of Buts and Bloomberg News

October 2, 2009

Bloomberg News top editor Matt Winkler raised eyebrows around the newswire/data provider the other week with his op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on transparency and the Fed.

It wasn’t the substance of the piece—He says in the interests of transparency the Obama administration should not appeal a lower court ruling that ordered the Fed to comply with a Bloomberg Freedom of Information Act request and disclose which banks are benefiting from Fed emergency lending programs and what collateral they posted.

Many journalists agree with all that, including us.

It wasn’t that the piece appeared in a rival publication—why shouldn’t it?

No, it was the appearance of the word “but” at the start of the second sentence:

Facing a banking collapse that was unlike anything it had seen since the Great Depression, the Federal Reserve created $2 trillion of assets and debts during the past year to rescue the nation’s financial institutions. But it did not make clear to taxpayers just where all of this money went. Taxpayers—involuntary investors in this case—have a right to know who received loans, in what amounts, for which collateral, and why specific loans were made.

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Now, I have no problem with “but.” It’s a fine word, even at the beginning of a sentence. But, as Bloomberg watchers know, “but” is all but (honk) banned by The Bloomberg Way, the notoriously restrictive style manual that Winkler himself wrote. Indeed, the “but” ban (and it is not absolute but try finding a “but” that’s not in a quote in a Bloomberg story) has in the minds of some (including me) come to symbolize the Bloomberg culture, which, whatever one’s opinion of it, can fairly be described as regimented and intense. The “but” question led me to my one and only encounter with Winkler last year.

To quote from the Bloomberg Way:

but. Avoid this. Clauses containing the word confuse more than they clarify. They force readers to deal with conflicting ideas in the same sentence, and interrupt the flow of the story. For the same reason, don’t use despite or however. Alternatives include although and while.

Is this the biggest deal in the world? No. And, as It turns out, there’s a story behind the “but.” But (ka-ching!) the point is, “but” is a useful word.

The larger point is whether the restrictions help or hurt Bloomberg’s writing, which is not a detail. I’m a careful reader of Bloomberg’s longer work, particularly its investigations, and I don’t think I’m alone in believing they can be difficult going. While praising this Loeb Award-winning wrap-up of the effects of the subprime crisis—“Savannah Cries Over Bicycle Lost After Subprime Reset” (Yeah, Bloomberg headlines are a trip, too)—I called it “jumbled” and the series “not beautifully written.” (I was actually comparing Bloomberg’s 2008 crisis coverage favorably toThe Wall Street Journal’s). Again, I don’t think it’s just me. Everybody talks about investigative reporting. Overlooked is the importance of investigative writing, which, when done right, can transform a lightning bug into lightning.

Winkler built Bloomberg’s news operation from a small cadre in 1990 into a global organization of staggering size: more than 2,000 journalists turning out 4,000 stories a day from, get this, 135 bureaus. Every day, traders bet billions using information from Bloomberg terminals. You can see why precision is important. You don’t want reporters waking up one day and deciding they should write that earnings story in iambic pentameter.

The organization now turns out long-form work of a sophistication that can rival anybody. But (booyah!) I sometimes wonder whether the rules, which may have been necessary in the earlier days, need revisiting.

In any case, this is all a bit of a shaggy dog story. Winkler didn’t write the “but” at all. Bloomberg spokeswoman Judith Czelusniak says the “but” was inserted by a WSJ copy editor and notes that the version that was submitted and ran on Bloomberg’s wire has no buts about it.

Sept. 21 (Bloomberg) — For the first time in its history, the Federal Reserve created $2 trillion of assets and debts during the past year so it could rescue banks from the unparalleled leverage that brought the world’s biggest economy to a collapse unlike anything since the Great Depression.

Taxpayers, to whom the Fed is beholden, have no idea how their money was used to save banks from their own recklessness. As the money is theirs, these involuntary investors have a right to know who received the loans, in what amounts, for which collateral and why the loans were conceived.

A Journal spokesman says Winkler approved the edit. (It’s a different publication with its own style, so there’s no gotcha here).

Czelusniak says the Bloomberg “but” rule isn’t nearly as restrictive as I make it out to be:

You will find the word used in news stories, on our opinion pages, etc., when it’s needed. This is a ridiculous argument…Our style guide makes it clear that writers should choose their words carefully.

And she adds that the rule is intended to keep reporters from equivocating, as they often do, sometimes in the same sentence, as she notes:

Guiding journalists not to say two conflicting things in the same sentence when reporting (THIS, but THAT) is part of the bigger issue of objectivity and accountability, a point worth making.

Indeed, though there’s probably another way to avoid the problem.

Finally, she says the Bloomberg version proves “that BUT wasn’t needed!!!”

Apparently, the WSJ disagrees. Insert “but” pun here, and let the debate begin.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR’s business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.