Given Bloomberg’s conspicuous commitment to openness (his foundation has invested billions in civic transparency efforts, and his dazzling corporate headquarters on New York’s Upper East Side has no private offices), I always wondered whether the whole mess hadn’t been the result of a gross misinterpretation of the chief executive’s wishes by some overzealous lieutenants.
“Quite honestly, I don’t want the reporters I’m paying to write a bad story about me,” Bloomberg said in a radio interview last week in Iowa, where he was paying an exploratory visit ahead of a possible 2020 bid for the White House. “I don’t want them to be independent.”
You can’t get much more transparent than that.
One of the things he’s considering to eliminate the possibility of a bad story by his own news service should he run for president, Bloomberg confided to his Iowa interviewer: eliminating the jobs of the people who have been laboring on an important beat for his news service. “You could say we’re not going to cover politics at all,” Bloomberg mused to Iowa Radio.
What Bloomberg does with his considerable fortune as a private businessman is, quite literally, his own business. But a potential aspirant for public office opens his actions and opinions to public dissection. Those actions and opinions reveal a disturbing attitude toward the First Amendment — and democracy generally.
For someone who is holding himself out as a political alternative to President Trump, Bloomberg sounds remarkably like his brassier Manhattan neighbor, at least when it comes to his cynical view of journalism.
It’s really not that far a leap from Bloomberg saying he doesn’t “want the reporters I’m paying to do a bad story about me” to Trump insisting that reporters in his White House news conferences not be allowed to ask “disrespectful” questions. Both men are signaling that they shouldn’t have to take a taste of what they’re dishing out.
In his Iowa interview, Bloomberg said Silicon Valley needs to get advice from “some good old journalists” about how to be more responsible about what gets published on social media websites. Yet he also repeated one of his favorite alibis for why he doesn’t subject himself to coverage by his own “good old journalists.”
“We’ve always had a policy of ‘we don’t cover ourselves,’” he said. “I believe in my heart of hearts that you can’t be independent, and nobody’s going to believe that you’re independent.”
To which I would say: “Balderdash.” (Those of you who have been there can supply the less-printable newsroom equivalent.)
To say journalists are incapable of the independence and the dispassion we professionally cultivate is to slander us — perhaps not as blatantly, but just as surely and as insidiously, as the person who calls us “enemies of the people.”
History, even recent history, is replete with examples of news organizations covering themselves and their owners — sometimes with the tolerance or even complicity of management and sometimes not so much. Because here’s the dirty little secret of media ownership: The reporters may get paid by the person with the checkbook, but they work for the readers — or the viewers, or the listeners.
And for all the undoubted good he has done as a creator of jobs and a philanthropist, Bloomberg’s personal and corporate history is replete with episodes that suggest his sympathies lie with an elite of owners, stars and celebrities and that he doesn’t think they have to follow the same rules as the rest of the worker bees.
This is, for example, the chief executive who changed the rules so he could run for a third term as mayor of New York and whose news service, most depressingly for journalists, failed to stand up for the brave reporters and editors who investigated corruption in China, a major market for Bloomberg’s data business. Is it an accident that Bloomberg News ended up harboring two boldface #MeToo perps — Charlie Rose and Mark Halperin? Both of whom might have been caught a lot sooner had their managers shown less tolerance for behavior that would have been promptly disciplined had it come from anyone with less celebrity wattage.
At a time when the ad revenue model that has sustained journalism is broken, reporters need wealthy, civic-minded patrons more than ever. But not if they view journalists as just another form of corporate minion and not unless the hand that feeds them is prepared to withstand a healthy nip from time to time.
In his Iowa interview, Bloomberg talked about the possibility of selling his business. Here’s hoping he does — at least the part that’s engaged in newsgathering. Give the terrific journalists who work for you what they deserve, Mr. Bloomberg: Set them free.