The Media Today

Michael Bloomberg gets a leg up

February 19, 2020

Michael Bloomberg is all over the news media, and not just in the ad breaks. Having initially flown below the radar due to his late entry into the Democratic primary, his low polling numbers, and his nonparticipation in the early nominating states, Bloomberg is now A Very Serious Candidate, and coverage of his candidacy is suddenly wall-to-wall. Not all of it is comfortable for Bloomberg. In the past week, Benjamin Dixon, a progressive podcast host, dug up his jarring past defense of stop-and-frisk policies (“We put all the cops in the minority neighborhoods… because that’s where all the crime is”); the AP surfaced his claim that the end of redlining, a racially discriminatory housing practice, caused the 2008 financial crisis; and outlets including GQ and the Washington Post highlighted sexual-harassment allegations against Bloomberg and his company. Still, as BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray wrote this week in a widely shared piece on his “Death Star” campaign, Bloomberg so far has shown “a Trump-like Teflon ability to brush off the negative stories.” This, Gray speculated, might be because his flaws have already been litigated, or because of all his advertising, or because “voters with a goal in mind”—in this case, beating Trump—“often don’t care about the issues with a candidate that the media cares about.”

Another possible reason? The critical coverage is too little, too late. As Dixon wrote in The Guardian last week, to this point, Bloomberg’s campaign has faced “little to no scrutiny”; instead, he’s been able to “sidestep this process entirely by spending millions on TV ads.” Dixon is right that the press (with some laudable exceptions) failed, until recently, to adequately vet Bloomberg’s candidacy. In fact, the problem has been broader than that—in several key ways, the political media has actively boosted his message and prospects.

ICYMI: The Devil in Details

Bloomberg’s ads, as Gray noted, have allowed him to shape a positive narrative on his own preferred terms. (Yesterday, Advertising Analytics reported that Bloomberg has already spent more than any other candidate ever on TV and radio ads, and that’s before we take the weird Instagram memes into account.) Ever since he started running, this ad spend has, in itself, driven a flurry of news stories—about its magnitude, and about the messaging in the ads themselves. Articles have quoted from Bloomberg ads; cable-news segments have aired them in full. The result: by having more money to spend on paid ads than his competitors, Bloomberg has grabbed a bunch of free airtime, too. Yesterday, on CNN, Wolf Blitzer asked a Bernie Sanders surrogate to respond to a Bloomberg ad attacking Sanders’s supporters, without challenging the validity of the attack; as Nate Silver noted this week, Bloomberg “wants people to talk about high-chatter-low-substance topics that are either Very Online or are which are very much obsessions of the mainstream media”—a very Trumpian tactic.

All the ad spending is a story—but the principle that should animate it is whether or not it’s healthy for American democracy, and not, as has often been the case, Wow, look how much money this guy has! It’s important to note that TV networks, in particular, are hardly disinterested observers here. As one analyst wrote recently, some of them, thirsty for ad dollars, are “jazzed to have Bloomberg in the fray.”

When substantive matters have been discussed, we’ve often centered Bloomberg’s philanthropy and donations to liberal political causes and candidates. This, indeed, is a key part of his record. If we aren’t careful, however, the positive connotations of giving can distract from—or crowd out—tough questions about where money has gone, and what its effects have been. This week, Alexander Burns and Nicholas Kulish, of the Times, published an admirably forensic look inside Bloomberg’s multibillion-dollar “empire of influence.” The money has undoubtedly made a difference in areas that include public health, climate change, and the discourse around guns. But Burns and Kulish found that it also, on more than one occasion, helped Bloomberg skirt scrutiny—of impolitic remarks on the #MeToo movement, for instance, or the surveillance of Muslims while he was mayor of New York—from progressive organizations that didn’t want to risk losing his largesse. There’s no evidence Bloomberg threatened any of his beneficiaries; rather, Burns and Kulish wrote, he built a “national infrastructure” of “unspoken suasion.” Charity, in other words, is an exercise of power as much as altruism. Until now, we haven’t interrogated that often enough. (In fairness to Burns and Kulish, their story took them months.)

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Intentionally or not, meanwhile, Bloomberg has been able to exploit the weaknesses of our horserace model of campaign coverage to his advantage. Our obsessive, months-long focus on Iowa—where Bloomberg wasn’t on the ballot—helped him evade scrutiny, but again, the problem has not just been one of passivity. Campaign coverage is obsessed with money and with electability—mutually-reinforcing concepts that, in turn, drive judgments of legitimacy and viability that bleed through into the public’s decision-making. The questionable narrative that the “Dems are in disarray”—okay, so Iowa happened, but sharp policy disagreements and vigorous electoral competition do not equal disarray—has helped Bloomberg, too; it’s established him as a possible “savior” despite (or, perhaps, because of) the fact that he hasn’t appeared on a ballot yet. Our obsessions with shiny new objects and momentum have had a similar effect.

Having bought his way around scrutiny, Bloomberg has finally bought himself into it. His recent poll surge has been one basis for the sharper coverage we’ve seen in recent days, and it qualified him, too, for tonight’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas—the first time he’ll appear on stage with his rivals. Some of Bloomberg’s critics have decried this as unfair—party bosses dropped an individual-donor requirement that had blocked Bloomberg from appearing, having previously refused to change the rules to ensure a more diverse debate stage—while others have welcomed it as an opportunity to scrutinize him some more. It’s now on the moderators to take that opportunity. They should grill Bloomberg on his record and policies; if he answers with his philanthropy, they should grill him on that, too. Softball questions will only give him another leg up.

Below, more on Bloomberg and the race:

  • Debate night: Tonight’s debate will kick off at 9pm Eastern. NBC News, MSNBC, Noticias Telemundo, and the Nevada Independent are hosting, with Lester Holt, Chuck Todd, Hallie Jackson, Vanessa Hauc, and Jon Ralston moderating. Hauc, of Telemundo, will become the first climate journalist ever to moderate a presidential debate. Emily Atkin, of HEATED, has more on her. Mark Hertsgaard, who directs Covering Climate Now, a project run by CJR and The Nation, writes this morning that including climate journalists on debate panels “should be standard practice for news outlets.”
  • Media relations: In addition to missing the debates, Bloomberg has mostly avoided set-piece TV interviews, too. Press interest in his campaign has swelled—as Gray, of BuzzFeed, notes, “initially he was being trailed by only a couple network embeds, but now every major outlet is sending reporters on his trail”—but Bloomberg rarely strays from his script. Last week, he held a “gaggle” for traveling reporters; with most candidates, these are casual, yet Bloomberg’s was highly regimented, Gray writes.
  • Bloomberg News: Bloomberg’s rise in the polls has amplified concerns at his eponymous news organization, where journalists have been banned from “investigating” Bloomberg or his Democratic rivals; this week, staffers told Michael M. Grynbaum, of the Times, that they’re having to fight a perception that they are biased. Yesterday, Bloomberg’s campaign confirmed that he will (eventually) sell his media company if he’s elected president. In other Bloomberg News news, Leta Hong Fincher alleges, in The Intercept, that editors killed a story, written by her husband, investigating China’s ruling class, then tried to “ruin me for speaking out.”
  • Elizabeth Warren: Warren’s campaign isn’t cratering or surging right now; as a result, Astead W. Herndon writes for the Times, her allies believe the media is freezing her out. In a bid to turn things around, Warren has made herself more available to reporters—and also criticized the press in ads and fundraising appeals.
  • Bernie Sanders: For Vanity Fair, Tom Kludt reports that Sanders’s campaign has “had it” with MSNBC, which it says is covering his candidacy unfairly; Faiz Shakir, the campaign manager, told Kludt that in his view, even Fox News has been “more fair” on Sanders. Sanders was on CNN last night, for a pre-debate town hall. When Anderson Cooper asked him if he was planning to release his full medical records, as he previously promised, Sanders said that he was not. (He had a heart attack last year.)

Other notable stories:

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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.