The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bloomberg News’ campaign coverage policy leads to fallout

Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg at a news conference in Norfolk, Va., on Nov. 25. (Drew Angerer/AFP/Getty Images)

Houston Chronicle editor Steve Riley had a stark message for his deputies last week: Avoid using Bloomberg News political stories.

Concerned by the news service’s hands-off policies when it comes to covering its owner and now presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, Riley advised his top editors to use sources other than Bloomberg News’s syndicated articles when selecting stories for the newspaper.

“I’d like to avoid running Bloomberg stories involving the presidential campaign, at least as long as the owner is in the race,” Riley wrote. “Its stance on treating Mike Bloomberg, and other Democrats, differently than Trump crushes the news service’s credibility.”

The email hints at some of the fallout for Mike Bloomberg and his globe-spanning news organization since the former New York mayor entered the presidential race last month. Bloomberg’s announcement prompted Bloomberg News editor John Micklethwait to instruct his 2,700-member newsroom to avoid investigating Bloomberg or any of his Democratic rivals but to continue looking into President Trump.

Micklethwait framed the unusual policy as one of fairness — Bloomberg News doesn’t investigate its boss, therefore it won’t do so with his Democratic rivals, he said — but critics have suggested the opposite is the case. President Trump’s campaign said the policy was unfair and cited it in barring Bloomberg reporters from its campaign events; Trump himself fired off a tweet blasting “Mini Mike Bloomberg” and his “third rate news organization” for “only” going after Trump. “It’s not O.K.!” he wrote.

Internally, some Bloomberg reporters have groused that Micklethwait’s edict handcuffs them in covering the 2020 presidential race and provides Trump more ammunition to fire at the media. They worry that it damages the credibility of the news organization, long known as a down-the-middle purveyor of news about financial markets, the economy and politics. Several spoke anonymously, reluctant to criticize their employer.

Bloomberg News’s former politics editor, Kathy Kiely, said in an interview on Monday that the coverage policy is a self-inflicted wound.

“I think it’s just devastating to the news service,” said Kiely, who left the company in 2016 and is a journalism professor at the University of Missouri. “How do you justify asking people to pay thousands of dollars [a year] for a news service that isn’t covering the campaign fairly? [Bloomberg] isn’t just undermining his own investment, he’s undermining his own campaign.”

Bloomberg and Micklethwait, she said, are “further undermining the press at a time when that’s the last thing we need. With friends like this, who needs Donald Trump?”

Bloomberg himself has had an imperious reaction to his employees’ concerns. When asked about their frustrations in an interview with CBS on Friday, he said they would “just have to learn to live with some things.” He added: “They get a paycheck. But with your paycheck comes some restrictions and responsibilities.”

A company spokeswoman declined to comment.

Riley’s reaction, however, suggested there are practical consequences for such a policy — a loss of faith in the work of Bloomberg’s journalists by news organizations that subscribe to its news wire and publish its work.

In his email to his deputies last week, the Chronicle editor cited a Bloomberg News article about Trump’s tax returns that had been published in the newspaper that morning. Use another news service’s reporting next time, he directed.

He also said other, nonpolitical stories from Bloomberg needed to be reevaluated in light of its campaign-coverage policy. “I recognize we run a lot of Bloomberg energy stories,” he wrote, “but we’d also have to look hard at any of their stories that involve the administration’s energy policies.”

Riley said in an interview that he’s an admirer of Bloomberg’s news service, particularly its coverage of the energy industry, which plays a major role in Houston’s economy.

But he said its plans to treat Bloomberg and other Democratic candidates differently than the president is “a poor decision for any serious news organization, and it will call their coverage of President Trump into question.”

Riley said he hadn’t contacted Bloomberg with his concerns. He also said he was unaware of any communication the company has offered to its news-wire clients about its campaign-coverage plans. “It seemed their position on coverage plans was pretty well set,” he said.

It’s not clear how widespread Riley’s sentiments are among the hundreds of news organizations that subscribe to Bloomberg News’s wire service. The Washington Post is among them, publishing “a limited selection” of business stories, some market data, business-related opinion and analysis pieces, and business-related photography, according to Post Managing Editor Cameron Barr.

“Their coverage of the economy and business has been entirely straightforward,” Barr said. “If we see any indication otherwise, we will have to reevaluate.”

But Kiely, the former Bloomberg editor, said some of the damage has already been done.

“The attitude at Bloomberg seems to be, ‘We can’t cover ourselves,’ ” she said. “But nothing is further from the truth. Does The Washington Post not cover Amazon because [Amazon chief executive] Jeff Bezos owns The Post? No. Does the Wall Street Journal not write about [principal owner] Rupert Murdoch? No. The fact is, most reporters are far more loyal to readers than to the person who signs the paychecks. That might be hard for the owners to accept, but it’s the truth.”