Not only did Michael R. Bloomberg upend the Democratic presidential primary with his candidacy, but he also created a media hullabaloo by further smudging the line between politics and journalism.
Shortly after the billionaire jumped Sunday into the 2020 race, Bloomberg News Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait said in a staff memo that the news division would refrain from investigating Mr. Bloomberg, his finances and his family, describing that policy as part of its journalism “tradition.”
In addition, he said, Bloomberg News will refrain from conducting investigations into Mr. Bloomberg’s Democratic rivals — but will continue to investigate President Trump and his administration — and that several Bloomberg editors and editorial board members will jump temporarily to the campaign.
Not since William Randolph Hearst’s unsuccessful bid for the 1904 Democratic presidential nomination has a major media mogul made a run for the presidency, and Mr. Micklethwait made it clear that the Bloomberg candidacy would be an unparalleled challenge.
“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),” Mr. Micklethwait said. “No previous presidential candidate has owned a journalistic organization of this size.”
Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the conservative Media Research Center, said the journalism industry has long struggled with the specter of a political figure like Mr. Bloomberg, who also has served as mayor of New York City, also owning one of the world’s largest media companies.
At a time when newspapers are struggling to stay afloat, Mr. Bloomberg’s media empire employs about 2,700 journalists and analysts over its print, radio, magazine and television platforms, according to the Bloomberg LP website.
“This sort of underlines the weirdness of Bloomberg News ever since he became mayor,” Mr. Graham said. “When your news service is owned by an elected official, how on earth do you do that?”
The outcry from the journalism class was swift. Former Bloomberg BusinessWeek editor Megan Murphy tweeted “[t]his is not journalism,” adding that she received a “near-identical ‘memo’” in 2016 and made it clear she would “quit the second it ever saw the light of day.”
Patricia Gallagher Newberry, president of the Society for Professional Journalists, agreed that Mr. Bloomberg’s candidacy placed Bloomberg News in a “difficult position,” but that the decision to stop investigating all Democratic candidates wasn’t the right answer.
“My opinion here is they haven’t hit exactly on the right recipe yet,” she said. “So yes, we’re going to cover Michael Bloomberg vis a vis the other 20 people in the race, but we’re not going to do any investigations. So what does that mean? How do they define investigations? Does that mean we’re not going to pull anyone’s FEC reports and look at who spent what on ads?”
Kevin Z. Smith, executive director of the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism at Ohio State University, called it “outlandish.”
“This is so outlandish it has to be recognized as a historical collapse of ethical standards,” tweeted Mr. Smith. “This isn’t just worthy of a future textbook case study, it needs immediate condemnation by the profession.”
David Martosko, U.S. political editor of The [U.K.] Daily Mail, described the policy as “completely unsustainable.” He predicted that Mr. Trump would use the specter of a news empire owned by a political rival to his advantage.
“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,’” Mr. Martosko tweeted.
Then there was the reaction from conservatives such as the Media Research Center’s Brent Bozell, who described the entire plan as not only unethical but also possibly illegal.
“Bloomberg ‘News’ declares it will not investigate Bloomberg or his fellow Democrats, but WILL investigate Trump. If that isn’t a massively illegal in-kind campaign contribution, what is?” tweeted Mr. Bozell.
He called on “any real journalist still working at Bloomberg” to resign — and then noted that several Bloomberg editorial board members have already left, not out of principle, but to work on the candidate’s primary campaign.
They include senior executive editor David Shipley and Tim O’Brien, executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion, author of the 2005 book “Trump Nation: The Art of Being the Donald,” who will also reportedly stop making appearances on MSNBC and NBC.
“The place where Michael has had the most contact with Editorial is Bloomberg Opinion: our editorials have reflected his views,” said the Micklethwait memo. “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.”
In an online post, Bloomberg Opinion said the department would suspend writing unsigned editorials as long as Mr. Bloomberg, who controls 89% of Bloomberg LP, which owns the media company, is a candidate.
“Members of the editorial board will write and edit in other capacities within Bloomberg Opinion,” said the post. “Because our columnists have always spoken for themselves, they will continue as before — though columnists will still refrain from endorsing candidates, a policy we have had in place since we started in 2011. Finally, we will not publish op-ed articles that relate to or are affiliated with any candidate or any presidential campaign, including Mike’s.”
As many commentators pointed out, however, he only way to avoid such a conflict of interest — and the hit to Bloomberg News’ reputation — would be to sell the company, which Mr. Graham said would never happen.
Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.