If so, that development would put Bloomberg’s extensive news operations in the difficult position of having a very special relationship with one of the candidates. Mainstream news organizations typically are uncomfortable with such connections, given that they raise questions among readers and viewers about conflicts of interest in their coverage, real and perceived.
Bloomberg operates one of the world’s largest media organizations, with 2,700 journalists and analysts across its text, magazine and broadcast operations in 120 countries.
It covered the news about Michael Bloomberg succinctly. In a story written by its Washington bureau chief, Craig Gordon, the relevant connection appeared in the third paragraph: “Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg L.P., the parent company of Bloomberg News.”
And that is about all Bloomberg News is willing to say about it. A spokeswoman, Kerri Chyka, issued a brief statement Monday: “Mike Bloomberg has not yet announced that he’s running. If and when he does, we will share our coverage plans with the newsroom.” Gordon declined to comment, referring a reporter back to Chyka.
According to people at Bloomberg, the news organization’s top editors, including editor in chief John Micklethwait, have given no special guidance to its staff about how to tackle a Michael Bloomberg candidacy.
Yet his running would inevitably raise internal questions, such as whether Bloomberg News can fairly cover its founder. Its reporting and style guide, called “The Bloomberg Way,” has long banned Bloomberg reporters from covering the founder’s “wealth or personal life,” two obvious areas of interest for any presidential candidate.
What’s more, a Bloomberg candidacy would extend the fairness issue to Bloomberg News’s coverage of his political rivals, including President Trump: Would coverage (or non-coverage) of them tilt in favor of the boss?
“For starters, the minute he formally announces, you would expect a statement about how they intend to manage the conflict of interest,” said Kelly McBride, an ethics expert at the Poynter Institute, a journalism education organization. “The ideal way is that he would have nothing to do with the company. He has to somehow recuse himself from any editorial management.”
Easier said than done, McBride acknowledged. Bloomberg L.P., the parent company of Bloomberg News, is a globe-spanning news and financial-information enterprise owned principally by Bloomberg himself. Although he is unlikely to sell his interest in the company in time to run for president, he said in an interview last year that he would sell his stake if he became president. He even mused that Bloomberg News would stop covering politics if he ran for president.
Alternatively, he could place his financial holdings in a blind trust to maintain an arm’s-length relationship from it. (Trump has declined to do so with his own businesses, raising questions about whether he is continuing to profit from his decisions in office.)
Questions about journalistic conflicts have irregularly come up about other wealthy owners of media properties. The Washington Post is owned by Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos, a fact regularly disclosed online or in print when Bezos or Amazon are covered by The Post. Other billionaires with interests in the news media include Rupert Murdoch (Fox News, the Wall Street Journal), John Henry (the Boston Globe) and Patrick Soon-Shiong (the Los Angeles Times).
Only one such wealthy media mogul has run for president in the past few decades. Republican Steve Forbes first sought his party’s presidential nomination in 1996 — he ran again in 2000 — at the same time he was the majority owner of Forbes magazine. His run drew few questions about conflicts of interest.
Bloomberg, 77, faced questions about his business holdings during his 12 years as New York mayor. During that time, he recused himself from day-to-day management of the company but did not divest himself of his holdings. He returned to the company as chief executive in 2014 after his time as mayor.
Bloomberg News covered Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor, but it devotes far more resources to covering national politics and economic policy and trade, all of which are affected by the 2020 presidential contest.
But Michael Bloomberg’s commitment to editorial transparency has at times been questionable. During an exploratory visit to Iowa last year, he sent chills through his newsroom when he told a radio interviewer: “Quite honestly, I don’t want the reporters I’m paying to write a bad story about me. I don’t want them to be independent.”
According to the “Bloomberg Way” guidebook, “Bloomberg Editorial doesn’t originate stories about the company.”
It adds: “Whenever we name Michael Bloomberg in a story, note his role as founder and majority owner of Bloomberg L.P. When reporting on his actions as a newsmaker, we should call him for comment as we would contact any other public figure.”
Poynter’s McBride said Bloomberg the company should “articulate a strategy” that ensures fairness in its coverage of Bloomberg the candidate. It could include an outside review panel or an internal ombudsman or public editor.
“Transparency is important for their credibility and to manage the perception that they’re being fair” to all the candidates, she said. “It really is a PR problem” as much as a journalistic one.