What happens when a billionaire finance and media mogul announces he is running for president? How does his media empire avoid running into countless conflicts of interest? Well, in the case of Bloomberg News, which is the sole domain of Michael Bloomberg who officially entered the 2020 presidential race on Sunday morning, the company's editor-in-chief just announced that it will extend its long-running policy of not doing any investigative reporting on its owner to all of his Democratic competitors who are also running for president.
Or, as Bloomberg editor-in-chief John Micklethwait put it, "We cannot treat Mike's Democratic competitors differently from him."
And that's why handing America's free media into the hands of a handful of organizations and a few billionaires is generally a bad idea, because sooner or later one or all of them decide that the world will be better if they run it, and the conflicts of interest explode, which means far less coverage of precisely those who need the most investigation at precisely the most important time - just when they are about to be elected president.
To be sure, members of the press were stunned by this development, including Bloomberg competitors such as Reuters...
Wowsers. Bloomberg News will not be investigating Bloomberg or any Democrat in the primary and senior members of the editorial board are joining his campaign: https://t.co/u0rxLGZAWZ— Amanda Becker (@AmandaBecker) November 24, 2019
... as well as Daily Mail's David Martosko.
How do you wrap your mind around this? I can't.— David Martosko (@dmartosko) November 24, 2019
Editorial board members joining the boss's campaign? A pledge to not investigate him? A parallel pledge to not investigate any other Democrats?
Is that newsgathering or a campaign contribution? What's the in-kind value of this? https://t.co/jD9DdvjE5L
Bernie Sanders' speechwriter David Sirota had a good take...
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. It’s a very tough situation for journalists, and probably not a great dynamic for democracy.— David Sirota (@davidsirota) November 23, 2019
... but it was Bloomberg's own ex Washington Bureau Chief who had the harshest condemnation:
For the record, I was presenting with a near identical “memo” during his 2016 flirtation. And I was very clear that I would quit the second it ever saw the light of day.— Megan Murphy (@meganmurp) November 24, 2019
On the other hand, while Bloomberg News will no longer cover any of the potential Democratic presidents, period, its "P&I team will continue to investigate the Trump administration, as the government of the day", albeit with the running disclaimer that its boss sees himself as Trump's biggest challenger. Good luck with objective reporting there.
What happens in the odd chance that Mike Bloomberg does win the nomination, at which point the billionaire will effectively have a massive "objective" newsroom as a PR weapon? According to Bloomberg News, it is still determining if and how it will continue to investigate the Trump administration if Bloomberg were to win the Democratic nomination and run against Trump in the general election. Until then, however, Bloomberg will clearly continue to focus on the president who for better or worse, remains the biggest traffic draw not only for Bloomberg but for every other media outlet out there.
All this was revealed in a memo to Bloomberg employees sent on Sunday morning after Bloomberg officially announced his candidacy, in which editor-in-chief John Micklethwait said also that:
- Going forward, the company will disclose that Bloomberg owns the company in all of its stories about the election.
- If other outlets publish stories about Bloomberg, Bloomberg Media would "either publish those articles in full, or summarize them for our readers - and we will not hide them."
- He noted that the company is following the same policy that it has applied to its coverage of corporate rivals CNBC and Reuters. Bloomberg doesn't investigate those companies, but it does report on the news of the day if it involves them.
- He said that Bloomberg News has already assigned a reporter to follow Bloomberg's presidential campaign, just as the company did when Bloomberg was running for New York City mayor.
- Bloomberg News would suspend its editorial board and that David Shipley, Tim O'Brien and other editorial board members will take a leave of absence to join Bloomberg's presidential campaign. Opinion columnists will continue to produce pieces, but editorial board bylines will cease.
The full memo is below:
So Mike is running.
There is no point in trying to claim that covering this presidential campaign will be easy for a newsroom that has built up its reputation for independence in part by not writing about ourselves (and very rarely about our direct competitors). No previous presidential candidate has owned a journalistic organization of this size. We have electoral laws to follow - to do with both balance and opinion. We will certainly obey them, but I think we need to do more than just that - and I believe we can. So this is how we will proceed.
We are not going to follow an exhaustive rulebook. That is partly because I believe that in journalism you “show” your virtue, you don’t “tell” it. You prove your independence by what you write and broadcast, rather than by proclaiming the details in advance. And I am loath to tie our hands at this stage. We cannot predict every detail of the future: we will have to make some decisions on a case-by-case basis. But we can follow some basic principles, and we will make a few organizational changes.
The place where Mike has had the most contact with Editorial is Bloomberg Opinion: our editorials have reflected his views. David Shipley, Tim O'Brien and some members of the Board responsible for those editorials will take a leave of absence to join Mike's campaign. We will suspend the Board, so there will be no unsigned editorials. Our columnists, who produce the majority of Bloomberg Opinion's content, will continue to speak for themselves, and we will continue to take some op-ed articles from outsiders (although not op-eds on the election). Bloomberg Opinion will be led by Bob Burgess, with Reto being the main overseer on the Editorial Management Committee.
On News, we will write about virtually all aspects of this presidential contest in much the same way as we have done so far. We will describe who is winning and who is losing. We will look at policies and their consequences. We will carry polls, we will interview candidates and we will track their campaigns, including Mike’s. We have already assigned a reporter to follow his campaign (just as we did when Mike was in City Hall). And in the stories we write on the presidential contest, we will make clear that our owner is now a candidate.
That covers the vast majority of what this newsroom does. We will continue our tradition of not investigating Mike (and his family and foundation) and we will extend the same policy to his rivals in the Democratic primaries. We cannot treat Mike's Democratic competitors differently from him. If other credible journalistic institutions publish investigative work on Mike or the other Democratic candidates, we will either publish those articles in full, or summarize them for our readers - and we will not hide them. For the moment, our P&I team will continue to investigate the Trump administration, as the government of the day. If Mike is chosen as the Democratic presidential candidate (and Donald Trump emerges as the Republican one), we will reassess how we do that.
To those who would rather that we did not write about Mike at all, I would reply that Bloomberg News has handled these conflicts before - and proved our independence. We are following the same policy that we have applied to Bloomberg LP and our direct rivals in the financial markets and media: we report on but do not investigate Reuters and CNBC. When Mike ran for mayor, we reported on the facts of his campaign and summarized other articles.
So those are the principles that we will follow. They are broad - and so there will be decisions to be made at the margin. That is what editors are for. And that leads to an organizational change, designed to add even more managerial clout.
Our news coverage of the 2020 race will be run on a day-to-day basis by Wes Kosova, Craig Gordon and our team in Washington, DC. If questions arise, we have Laura Zelenko’s Standards team to call on. But I have asked Marty Schenker, our Chief Content Officer who works alongside Reto and myself on the Editorial Management Committee, to take special responsibility for overseeing our news coverage of Mike and his rivals (and the questions that may occur about this election all the way round the world), in the same way that Reto will oversee Opinion. We may well have to make quick decisions across many platforms. Marty has covered every election since Watergate; we need his experience and judgment, even if responsibility for any mistakes we make ultimately rests with me.
Given the workload this will involve, I have asked Heather Harris to take on Marty’s responsibilities as Chief Content Officer for EMEA and APAC – and she will join Reto, Marty and me on our management committee.
I think this is a structure that can cope with many eventualities. No doubt, many of you are already thinking of possible complexities that may arise. My response is: let’s get back to work. We can spend a long time debating “what ifs”. I would rather that we got on with the journalism and let that speak for itself. So write, blog, broadcast - and the rest will take care of itself.