What should happen at a news organization when the person who owns the company runs for president?
Bloomberg News is muddling through by discontinuing unsigned editorials — the institutional voice of the organization — but keeping all the regular columnists, like our friend Ramesh Ponnuru, in place. Top editors David Shipley and Tim O’Brien will take leaves of absence to join the Bloomberg campaign. (If you’ve ever scoffed, “this editorial reads like it was written by a Bloomberg presidential campaign staffer . . .” it turns out you were right!)
Bloomberg News staff are no longer doing investigative work on the other Democratic primary challengers… but are continuing to investigate President Trump. Republicans are going to grumble about this, contending that Bloomberg News is turning into a giant opposition research and publicity wing for Bloomberg’s presidential campaign.
But A) asking a news organization to refrain from covering anything related to Trump for the next twelve months is practically asking them to stop covering politics and government entirely and B) face it, most Republicans thought these guys were a giant opposition research and publicity wing for Bloomberg anyway, so these moves don’t change much.
It’s easy to understand the frustration of Bloomberg News reporters in this situation, but every other alternative would have created another set of problems.
The memo announcing the policy noted, “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.” In other words, no, Bloomberg News never did investigative journalism digging into any problems and potential scandals of the man who founded the company.
Over at the Washington Post, Margaret Sullivan wishes that Bloomberg “entirely recused himself from decision-making or influence at the news organization — saying, in effect, ‘cover me like anyone else and do it with journalistic integrity.’” Yes, it would be nice if he did that, but you’re just not going to find many wealthy media moguls willing to finance journalism that exposes their own flaws. On the long list of problems with Michael Bloomberg, his unwillingness to pay for reporters digging into himself seems pretty low on the list.
With the former mayor running, Bloomberg News now cannot go ahead with a giant expose of Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren. Oftentimes accusations are in the eye of the beholder, but in this case, the reporters would actually be getting paid (indirectly) by another candidate.
Sullivan points to the Washington Post’s coverage of its owner, Jeff Bezos and Amazon, as an example that Bloomberg and his news organization could follow. But fairly or not, even the Post’s critical coverage of Bezos and Amazon will be eyed warily by some because of his ownership. No matter how tough the paper’s coverage is, some readers will always be wondering if the story was softened at all out of fear of irking the boss. And any Post scoop about Amazon will be perceived by some skeptics as a strategic leak of some kind.
Most news consumers are sophisticated enough to realize that news institutions are not likely to be fierce critics of the man who owns them, particularly when they share the same name. You’re no more likely to find a “why Mike Bloomberg would make a terrible president” column on the site that bears his name than a “why Steve Forbes is history’s greatest monster” in his business magazine in the mid-1990s.
Bloomberg News didn’t have any great answers here. But it’s a safe bet that some of his employees are hoping he quits the race as quickly as possible.