Over the years, Bloomberg L.P. has proven itself capable of incredible investigative journalism — which makes its recent self-censorship all the more cowardly. Earlier this week, Ben Richardson, Bloomberg’s editor-at-large for Asia news, quit, becoming the third notable journalist to defect from the firm recently.
Would that Bloomberg’s corporate leaders had the same moral authority as its writers. Instead, the news outlet has shied away from investigative coverage in China, opting instead to focus on the stories that simply make money.
Speaking in Hong Kong last week, Bloomberg chairman Peter T. Grauer said: “We have about 50 journalists in the [Chinese] market, primarily writing stories about the local business and economic environment. You’re all aware that every once in a while we wander a little bit away from that and write stories that we probably may have kind of rethought — should have rethought.”
Though Grauer didn’t explicitly mention any controversial articles or self-censorship, his comments have widely been interpreted as a concession to China’s touchy oligarchic leadership.
It was a remarkable work of journalism. As Bloomberg wrote at the time: “What can be found in public documents often remains obscured by the use of multiple names in Mandarin, Cantonese and English. To document these identities and business interests, [reporters] scoured thousands of pages of corporate documents, property records and official websites, and conducted dozens of interviews — from a golf course in southern China to the Deng family compound in Beijing to a suburban home in Ann Arbor, Michigan.”
The story’s reception was equally epic. Longtime China experts marveled at the report, which was awarded the Asia Society’s prestigious Osborn Elliott Prize. Chinese citizens (at least those who managed to read the series before it was censored online) reacted with fury against official corruption, and the Chinese government, rattled by the article, retaliated vehemently against Bloomberg.
Beijing mandated that state-run enterprises promptly cancel their subscriptions to Bloomberg’s financial-data terminals. It also blocked Bloomberg’s Chinese website and denied residential visas to new Bloomberg journalists seeking to report within Chinese borders.
Though no precise dollar figure for the loss has been reported, Bloomberg makes more than 80 percent of its $8.5 billion annual revenue from financial-data terminals, which cost more than $20,000 a year. Chinese subscriptions reportedly plummeted after Beijing’s retaliations.
That apparently made an impact on Bloomberg’s top editors, who buckled under the pressure, if the reports are to be believed.
In November, the New York Times spoke to numerous Hong Kong–based Bloomberg reporters, who said there had been another major investigative project underway, a report that examined connections between a Chinese billionaire and the ruling families. However, the Bloomberg reporters claimed, the story was killed outright by editors reluctant to face the consequences.
“[Bloomberg News editor-in-chief Matthew] Winkler defended his decision, comparing it to the self-censorship by foreign news bureaus trying to preserve their ability to report inside Nazi-era Germany, according to Bloomberg employees familiar with the discussion,” the New York Times reported.
Days after that happened, Amanda Bennett, who led Bloomberg’s investigative unit, resigned, saying she was “most proud of the groundbreaking June 2012 story that the [investigative] team led, that for the first time exposed the wealth of the relatives of China’s top leaders.” And not long after, Bloomberg suspended Michael Forsythe (it was presumed he had spoken to the New York Times, which he later joined).
Richardson, the editor who has just resigned in protest, berated Bloomberg execs to blogger Jim Romenesko on Monday, explaining, “I left Bloomberg because of the way the story was mishandled, and because of how the company made misleading statements in the global press and senior executives disparaged the team that worked so hard to execute an incredibly demanding story.”
Bloomberg may continue to profit in China, but by allowing Beijing to bully it into submission, it has compromised the most priceless asset a news organization can possess: integrity. It’s hard to take seriously a publication that subjects its editorial standards to the interests of a corrupt and authoritarian government.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.