The Media Today

How Bloomberg plans to handle its owner’s run for president

November 25, 2019

Earlier this month, reports circulated that Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman and former mayor of New York City, was weighing a run for president again, having previously ruled himself out. Amid media conjecture about his chances (consensus: quite slim) and motives (concern about the field or concern about his massive wealth?), journalists at Bloomberg News, which Bloomberg owns, faced renewed uncertainty about how they might handle a Bloomberg bid, and even, in some cases, their jobs; late last year Bloomberg mused, to Radio Iowa, about shutting down his outlet’s politics coverage should he stand. (“Quite honestly, I don’t want all the reporters I’m paying to write a bad story about me.”) In the aftermath of that remark, the Daily Beast asked Bloomberg staffers if they thought their boss should run. Only one, a noneditorial staffer, said yes. Several of those who said no cited potential complications with their work.

Yesterday—as Bloomberg jumped off the fence and into the 2020 Democratic primary—management at Bloomberg News moved to clear things up, too. In a memo to staff, John Micklethwait, the editor in chief, wrote that while there’s “no point in trying to claim that covering this presidential campaign will be easy,” Bloomberg will address “virtually all aspects of this presidential contest in much the same way as we have done so far,” including assigning a reporter to Bloomberg’s campaign. (Disclosure: Micklethwait serves on CJR’s board of overseers.) Nonetheless, the boss’s ambitions will require journalistic concessions. Some—disclosures on relevant articles, for example—look pretty simple. Others look like a minefield. Bloomberg journalists will not be allowed to investigate Bloomberg, his family, or his business and charitable endeavors. This, in itself, is a continuation of an existing policy at the outlet—but it now also applies to all of Bloomberg’s 2020 primary rivals. (“We cannot treat Mike’s Democratic competitors differently from him,” Micklethwait wrote.) Instead, Bloomberg will run investigations by other outlets verbatim or in summary form. Reporters will still be able to investigate Trump—but that could change if Bloomberg wins the nomination.

ICYMI: The Problem with ‘Fixers’

Change is afoot on the opinion side, too. Bloomberg will suspend its editorial board and cease running unsigned editorials, which have typically reflected Bloomberg’s views; nor will editors commission outside op-eds about 2020. Strikingly, this isn’t just a matter of abstinence: David Shipley and Tim O’Brien, top editors of Bloomberg’s opinion content, will take leaves of absence from the organization to work on Bloomberg’s presidential campaign, as will five of their colleagues. (O’Brien will no longer serve as a contributor on MSNBC or NBC News, either.)

News of Micklethwait’s memo did not exactly go down well on media Twitter. “This is not journalism,” Megan Murphy, the former editor of Bloomberg Businessweek, tweeted; Murphy recalled that a similar memo had circulated inside Bloomberg when the boss was mulling a run in 2016, and that she had been “very clear that I would quit the second it ever saw the light of day.” (In the end, Bloomberg didn’t run in 2016.) BuzzFeed’s Ryan Mac called the new policies “the downside of billionaire-owned journalism” and said they “will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on the rest of the newsroom.” David Martosko, US politics editor at the Daily Mail, said aspects of the Bloomberg situation seem “completely unsustainable” and represent a threat to journalistic credibility: “I predict Trump rallies will include this: ‘Is there a Bloomberg reporter back there in the fake news section? They fly on Air Force One every day and chase me around but Little Mike won’t let them investigate ANY Democrats. It’s crooked as hell.’ ”

Such criticism, of course, requires some hypothesizing. In his memo, Micklethwait stressed that the new guidelines don’t constitute an “exhaustive rulebook,” and that there’ll be room for case-by-case discretion going forward. (“That is what editors are for.”) Allowing for some flexibility is better than not doing so. Still, Bloomberg’s new rules already seem inflexible on certain key points, and uncertainty at the margins risks catching journalists in a bind. Jim Rutenberg, of the Times, put it best. Bloomberg’s approach, he said, “augurs much pretzel-like decision making”; a simpler option would be for Bloomberg to “let journalists do journalism,” thus endorsing the idea “that those seeking to lead the democracy need to live” with a strong free press.

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Political investigations might not be Bloomberg’s core competency, but “political” coverage has an inconvenient habit of spilling out of its silos. And foreclosing the possibility of some types of scrutiny is a regrettable step for a news outlet to take, period. It reduces our collective journalistic capacity at a moment when we sorely need it.

Below, more on Bloomberg and Bloomberg:

  • Ad nauseam: Much chatter over the weekend was devoted to Bloomberg’s massive initial ad buy, proving, once again, that paid-for publicity drives free publicity. The Times’ Shane Goldmacher offered a sense of scale. “People who watch NBC’s local news this week in Los Angeles from 4pm to 7pm will see NINE Michael Bloomberg ads—every day,” he tweeted. “If someone watched just the 5pm newscast all week—they would see 20 ads that are each one minute long.”
  • A wider effect? On Saturday, David Sirota, a former journalist who now works for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, tweeted that “every reporter covering 2020 knows that if they write a story seriously scrutinizing Mike Bloomberg, they risk enraging a person who owns a sizable segment of the media job market,” calling his candidacy “a very tough situation for journalists, and probably not a great dynamic for democracy.” Many journalists pushed back.
  • Department of crossing that bridge when we come to it: If Bloomberg wins the Democratic nomination, he could opt to put his company in a blind trust. (He has previously mused about selling up in such circumstances, but company representatives say that’s not under consideration right now.) Will Bloomberg’s bid come to that? FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich assessed his primary chances: “In short, they’re not very good.”

Some news from the home front:
CJR’s new print issue, “True Lies,” on the theme of disinformation, starts rolling out online today. In his introductory note to the issue, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, worries that “in the age of Trump and Facebook trolls and partisan propaganda, it looks to me like disinformation is winning.” Also online today, Elisabeth Zerofsky profiles Carole Cadwalladr, the British reporter who broke open the Cambridge Analytica scandal last year. (ICYMI, we published Simon van Zuylen-Wood’s piece from the magazine, about the National Enquirer, last week, ahead of today’s launch.)


Other notable stories:

  • Over the weekend, the plot thickened further on Ukraine. The Journal’s Rebecca Davis O’Brien and Christopher M. Matthews report that Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, indicted associates of Rudy Giuliani, allegedly proposed a takeover of Ukraine’s state oil-and-gas company. Elsewhere, ABC reports that Parnas has given the House Intelligence Committee recordings of Trump and Giuliani, and Parnas’s lawyer tells CNN’s Vicky Ward that his client is willing to inform Congress of meetings that Devin Nunes, the top Republican on House Intelligence, allegedly took last year with a former Ukrainian prosecutor to discuss “dirt on Joe Biden.” Approached for comment, Nunes told CNN, “I don’t talk to you in this lifetime or the next lifetime. At any time. On any question”; he later told Breitbart that the story is false, and threatened to sue CNN and the Daily Beast for reporting it. (Nunes previously sued McClatchy, owner of his local Fresno Bee; Esquire; and the parody Twitter accounts “Devin Nunes’ mom” and “Devin Nunes’ cow.”)
  • The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is out with the “China Cables,” a cache of secret Chinese government documents that sheds light on the country’s detention of Muslims, including “the operations manual for running the mass detention camps in Xinjiang and…the mechanics of the region’s Orwellian system of mass surveillance and ‘predictive policing.’ ” ICIJ worked on the story with seventeen outlets, including the Times, the AP, and NBC News. (Last year, I took a deep look at ICIJ for CJR.)
  • In Egypt, the authoritarian regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi arrested Shady Zalat, a senior editor at Mada Masr, the last surviving independent outlet in the country. The arrest followed the recent deportation of Daniel O’Connell, an American who had been working for Mada Masr in Cairo. Yesterday, officials raided the site’s offices and detained several staffers, including its top editor, Lina Attalah. All have since been released, as has Zalat.
  • Late last week, a court in Turkey upheld the convictions of twelve former staffers from Cumhuriyet, the last big independent outlet in that country; a higher appeals court had previously acquitted the journalists, but will now have to reevaluate the case, Reuters reports. Last year, Shawn Carrié and Asmaa Omar profiled Cumhuriyet for CJR.
  • Following the release of A Warning—the Trump-critical book by a “senior Trump administration official”—Nate Hopper asked reporters who, exactly, qualifies as a “senior administration official.” Major Garrett, of CBS; Olivia Nuzzi, of New York; and Peter Baker, of the Times, replied; per Baker, “We shouldn’t let every official out there describe him or herself as ‘senior,’ even though they all think they are.” Hopper has more for CJR.
  • And the Times’ Annie Karni spoke with Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the former White House press secretary who feels she’s “been called” to run for governor of Arkansas. (She’s yet to confirm a bid, and there won’t be a vacancy until 2023.) Reflecting on criticism of her time in the White House, Sanders said, “I don’t like being called a liar.”

ICYMI: Platforms, publishers, and the end of scale

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.