The Media Today

Michael Bloomberg and the billionaire news cycle

November 11, 2019

Late last week, we learned that Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City, is weighing a late entry into the 2020 Democratic primary. Some took the news very seriously—the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, for instance, encouraged Bloomberg to jump into the race (“The Water’s Fine, Mr. Bloomberg”)—others, less so. President Trump gave Bloomberg a derisory nickname. (Okay, that may be evidence that Trump takes him seriously.) When a Des Moines Register journalist asked Bernie Sanders about reports that Jeff Bezos entreatied Bloomberg to run, Sanders laughed uncontrollably, then quipped about the billionaires’ “strong grassroots movement.” And at least two journalists punned Bloomberg’s name into the viral “OK, boomer” meme. (If you still don’t know what that is, don’t feel the need to look it up.)

Whatever its tone, speculation that Bloomberg—who previously ruled himself out because he was “clear-eyed about the difficulty of winning”—might stand after all drove media discussion throughout the weekend. Very rich people flirting with the White House always drives interest: earlier this year, the (non-)candidacy of Howard Schultz attracted coverage—including CNN’s second town-hall event of the entire campaign season—that was wholly disproportionate to its policy heft and popular backing. In all, Bloomberg’s intentions are a much weightier matter than Schultz’s: he has actual policies (around guns and climate change, for instance); his record of public service merits scrutiny (liberal commentators already laid into his expansion of New York’s stop-and-frisk program); and (on the face of it, at least) his interest in running offers insight into the shape of the Democratic primary. Nonetheless, there are similarities here. As with Schultz, the Bloomberg chatter is still hypothetical. His support looks anemic: a Morning Consult poll out yesterday has Bloomberg well outside the top tier of Democratic candidates, with the highest unfavorable rating in the entire field. As FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver tweeted, Bloomberg’s possible entry is “not exactly the ‘seismic disruption’ that some predicted.”

ICYMI: Twitter hates me. The Des Moines Register fired me. Here’s what really happened.

And clearly, great wealth is always a coverage booster. Last week, ahead of the Bloomberg story, very rich people’s objections to Elizabeth Warren’s proposed wealth tax—and the state of the Democratic primary generally—drove a mini news cycle. On CNBC, Leon Cooperman, a billionaire hedge-fund manager and vocal Warren critic, teared up during a discussion of the election. (Cooperman since endorsed Bloomberg.) Steven Rattner, who manages the investment of Bloomberg’s personal and philanthropic assets, wrote an op-ed for the Times calling a Warren presidency “a terrifying prospect.” At the Times’s DealBook Conference, Bill Gates also took aim at Warren: “When you say I should pay $100 billion, OK, then I’m starting to do a little math about what I have left over,” he said, driving a round of headlines. (Gates said he was “kidding”; on her campaign site, Warren kidded back, posting a tax calculator for “confused” billionaires.)

None of this is to say that costly, transformative policies should not be scrutinized, costed, or disputed. Rather, as Matthew Yglesias, of Vox, put it, “The fact that each random billionaire’s thoughts on Elizabeth Warren [are] a news story is itself a powerful demonstration of the disproportionate political influence of the very rich.” When billionaires’ interests are hypothetically threatened, they have a reliably outsized platform from which to fight back; vulnerable people do not, even though their interests are actively threatened by the status quo. Bloomberg’s possible candidacy, and the ample coverage of it, can be seen, at least in part, as a manifestation of this trend—his reported electoral concerns about Warren and Sanders may be genuine, but either way, he certainly, viscerally opposes their economic policies. Most voters can’t fund a presidential campaign to get their views across. Most voters don’t own a news organization, either.

On the Sunday shows, progressive commentators echoed Sanders’s warning that Bloomberg won’t be able to buy the nomination. That may be true, but great wealth, it seems, can buy media coverage, if only by proxy. We should bear this in mind when covering Bloomberg’s movements. On ABC’s This Week, Martha Raddatz asked Jonathan Swan, of Axios, “Who are the people out there—no matter how much money is spent—who are saying, Yes! Michael Bloomberg is finally getting in the race?”; Swan replied: “It’s really the donors.” Voters’ preferences aren’t necessarily the best barometer of what matters. But donors’ certainly aren’t.

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Below, more on Michael Bloomberg and 2020:

  • Bad stories: Late last year, the last time Bloomberg was mulling a bid, he told Radio Iowa that should he run, he might end his eponymous news outlet’s political coverage: “Quite honestly,” he said, “I don’t want all the reporters I’m paying to write a bad story about me.” After that interview, The Daily Beast asked dozens of Bloomberg News employees if their boss should run; only one said yes. And Kathy Kiely—who resigned as a politics editor at Bloomberg News in 2016, after she was banned from covering chatter about her boss’s prospects—wrote for the Washington Post that Michael Bloomberg “still doesn’t seem to understand how journalism works,” and should “give the terrific journalists who work for you what they deserve… Set them free.”
  • Media matters: Is Bloomberg ready for the media madness of a presidential campaign? Maggie Haberman, of the Times, is skeptical. Like other New York politicians, she tweeted, “Bloomberg has long thought he understood tough media coverage because of the city’s tabloids. But he is wholly unfamiliar with the national media climate that Trump has thrown accelerant on.”
  • Quid pro quo: If Bloomberg were to get in, he wouldn’t be the only billionaire in the Democratic primary: Tom Steyer is there already. Last night, Steyer became the latest candidate to get the CNN town-hall treatment; during it, he criticized Bloomberg for rejecting the idea of a wealth tax. Late last week, Steyer’s campaign received some unwanted scrutiny: the AP’s Alexandra Jaffe reported that Pat Murphy, a top aide in Iowa, offered campaign contributions to local politicians in exchange for their support. There’s no evidence the overtures came to anything; nonetheless, Murphy resigned.
  • Less than a year to go: On CJR’s podcast, The Kicker, Gabriel Snyder, Ana Marie Cox, Maria Bustillos, and Emily Tamkin—our public editors for the Times, the Post, MSNBC, and CNN, respectively—discussed the state of those outlets’ political coverage.

Other notable stories:

  • In impeachment testimony released on Friday, Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine specialist on the National Security Council, took aim at John Solomon—a journalist, formerly with The Hill, whose stories on Democrats’ supposed wrongdoing in Ukraine were influential in Trumpworld. Vindman called one article by Solomon a “false narrative”; when a Republican Congressman asked whether Vindman thought everything in the piece was false, Vindman replied, “his grammar might have been right.” This week, the impeachment inquiry moves into its TV phase. Top diplomats Bill Taylor and George Kent will appear at public hearings on Wednesday; Marie Yovanovitch, the ousted US ambassador to Ukraine, will follow on Friday. Ahead of the hearings, the Post’s Margaret Sullivan offered some advice for the reporters covering them.
  • Nikki Haley has a book out; in it, she claims that John Kelly, the former White House chief of staff, and Rex Tillerson, the former secretary of State, tried to recruit her to “save the country” by resisting Trump’s demands. Haley’s book precedes the release of A Warning, in which the anonymous official who authored a 2018 Times op-ed about saving the country from Trump’s demands will expand on that theme; in her review for the Times, Jennifer Szalai writes that the book’s ideal reader “would seem to be an undecided voter who has lived in a cave for the past three years, and is irresistibly moved by quotations from Teddy Roosevelt and solemn invocations of Cicero.” John Bolton, the ex-national security adviser, is also set to get in on the Trump-book action.
  • During an interview with Axios on HBO, Dara Khosrowshahi, the CEO of Uber, called Saudi Arabia’s murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi “a mistake.” (The country is among Uber’s biggest investors, and is represented on its board.) “We’ve made mistakes, too, right? With self-driving [cars],” Khosrowshahi said. “People make mistakes. It doesn’t mean they can never be forgiven.” Later, Khosrowshahi walked that back: the murder “was reprehensible and should not be forgotten or excused,” he said.
  • For the Times, Michael H. Keller and Gabriel J.X. Dance report that tech companies are not doing everything they can to remove imagery depicting child sexual abuse from their platforms. In the course of its reporting, “The Times wrote a computer program that used an invisible browser to check search engines for child sexual abuse material,” Keller and Dance write. “It scanned for images without downloading or displaying them.”
  • Over the weekend, protesters in Bolivia occupied the offices of two state media outlets, forcing employees to leave the premises—part of a wave of tensions following disputed recent elections in the country. Yesterday, Evo Morales, Bolivia’s long-serving left-wing president, and his deputy resigned, calling themselves the victims of a coup. Police officers started to turn on Morales on Friday; yesterday, military leaders did likewise.
  • Alexandra Glorioso, a healthcare reporter with Politico, reflects on having cancer: “If I’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that nothing—not even being a health care reporter, not even having a scientist as a father and a doctor as a sister—can prepare you for the immense number of complicated, sometimes life-or-death decisions the disease and the system force you to make about your own treatment, all on your own.”
  • Jill Geisler, who writes a newsroom-management column for CJR, discussed newsroom unionization campaigns with Kyle Pope, our editor and publisher. “Some companies see union certification efforts as declarations of war and expect all managers to suit up for the fight,” Geisler argues. “Wise leaders let their frontline managers be Switzerland.”
  • And Roger Sollenberger writes for Salon that Rudy Giuliani texted him what appeared to be a password. Giuliani—who has form when it comes to inadvertent contacts with reporters—runs a cybersecurity firm.

ICYMI: Has climate news coverage finally turned a corner?

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.