Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City, made his campaign for the Democratic nomination official on Sunday after last week buying $30 million in TV ads to tout his background.
The ad blitz places Bloomberg’s sprawling media empire in the uncomfortable, and perhaps unprecedented, position of having to cover the campaign of the man who founded and still heads their company. Bloomberg operates one of the world’s largest media organizations, with about 2,700 journalists in TV, radio, magazine and digital operations.
For weeks, Bloomberg News’s top editors have wrestled with how they could fairly report on their boss if he decided to run while being fair to his political rivals, including President Trump, who is seeking a second term.
Micklethwait’s memo Sunday laid out what he called “basic principles” in covering Bloomberg’s political aspirations.
Most notably, he said his newsroom would continue “our tradition” of not investigating Bloomberg, his family and his wealth, “and we will extend the same policy to his rivals in the Democratic primaries.” A Bloomberg News spokeswoman, Kerri Chyka, also said the company won’t initiate stories about Bloomberg L.P., following a long-standing policy.
The hands-off policy puts Bloomberg News in the awkward position of passing on such critical stories as Trump’s unfounded allegations of corruption against former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter. At the same time, Micklethwait said Bloomberg News would continue to investigate the Trump administration.
The decision not to initiate stories about Democrats’ wealth and family is itself a potential conflict, as it may leave readers and viewers in the dark about important developments involving Bloomberg’s rivals. It would also unfairly give greater weight to stories involving potential corruption by Trump, his family or his administration.
However, Micklethwait said Bloomberg would publish investigative articles or summaries of articles about these topics involving Democrats from “credible journalistic institutions.” He did not spell out which sources he deemed “credible.”
Taken broadly, the guidelines are similar to Bloomberg News’s policies in covering Mike Bloomberg during his three terms as New York City mayor. In that instance, Bloomberg News had a city hall reporter who regularly reported on the then-mayor’s policies and initiatives (the company currently has a full-time reporter assigned to Bloomberg’s presidential campaign).
But the scope and complexity of covering a national political campaign are far greater than covering city hall.
Micklethwait also said Bloomberg News would suspend publishing its own editorials on Bloomberg Opinion and will temporarily shut down the board that produces them. These editorials reflect Bloomberg News’s institutional view, and Mike Bloomberg’s own positions on issues, according to Micklethwait.
In an unusual move, the two top editors of the opinion section, David Shipley and Timothy O’Brien, will take a leave of absence and join Bloomberg’s campaign, according to the memo. Five other members of the opinion team will join them on the campaign, the company said.
Shipley was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. O’Brien is a veteran journalist and the author of a book about Trump, “TrumpNation,” for which he and his publisher were unsuccessfully sued by Trump over O’Brien’s claims that Trump’s net worth was considerably less than what Trump had claimed.
Micklethwait said Bloomberg News will continue to publish bylined opinion columns, including those from outside contributors, although it won’t publish any op-eds on the election. It’s unclear how this policy would work, given that almost every issue of national and international importance is affected by the presidential race.
“I think this is a structure that can cope with many eventualities,” Micklethwait wrote. “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.”
But Bloomberg News’s safeguards may not be enough to avoid perceptions of conflicts, said Kathleen Bartzen Culver, who directs the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
“My main concern is with the ‘show not tell’ approach. I would do both,” she said. “Keep the journalism independent but tell readers how and why it is. . . . Why wouldn’t they craft a set of statements about how they’re going to operationalize fairness and independence here and link to it in all coverage? I imagine such statements would look a lot like this reassurance to staff, but they’d instead be reassuring the public.”