The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Michael Bloomberg’s news outlet couldn’t cover him fairly. So I quit.

What happens to journalism if journalists can't bite the hands that feed them?

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is reportedly considering a presidential campaign. What does that mean for his news organization? (Justin Lane/EPA)

On the evening that news of my resignation from Bloomberg Politics broke this week, I kept an appointment with a Princeton University student who had wanted to interview me for her college thesis, about women in journalism. Her first question: When did I know I wanted to be a journalist?

That was easy. It was the summer of 1976 and I was lucky enough to have landed an internship at my hometown newspaper, the Pittsburgh Press. My colleagues were hardly the sort that college career counselors would recommend as mentors: Their fashion sense was dubious; their humor ribald. They had messy desks and, often, messy lives. They were not much interested in money or fame — unless it was someone else’s they could turn into a headline.

They were also amazingly resourceful, utterly reliable on deadline and completely allergic to humbug (known in newsrooms by a less polite name). They had never met an authority they weren’t willing to challenge. And while it would have run completely counter to their raffish code to claim they were performing a social good, I secretly thought so. Never in a million years would I have let on, though: I wanted too badly to belong to their proudly unpretentious gang.

What would they think of me now, I wondered? I had quit a job with good pay and a first-class expense account because of how Bloomberg executives restricted the company’s journalists from covering the possibility that the company’s owner, ex-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, might run for president. Maybe those former heroes of mine would think I was nuts. Or maybe they’d think I lived up to the code by calling, er, humbug over being told we had to handle the boss differently from every politician, sometime politician or plutocrat who thinks he or she should run the world.

To give some idea of my perspective on how America’s would-be leaders should be hazed: I still can recite by rote the less-than-reverential cross-examination the Pittsburgh Press politics editor gave one candidate for Pennsylvania governor whose chances he viewed as less than optimal. “Alan, what in the hell — I mean, WHAT IN THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?” he bellowed at the hapless hopeful, seated at a tiny interview table right in the middle of an open newsroom.

Not that I am under any illusion about having come up in some golden age of a truly free press: Journalists have always relied on the kindness of wealthy strangers. It’s a rare reporter (maybe I.F. Stone?) who hasn’t had a paycheck signed by a multimillionaire or a multimillion-dollar corporation. But I do think that there was less of a sense of being beholden, and not that long ago.

That’s because we knew our hard work helped to make rich publishers richer. Our stories provided a platform for advertising that drove newspapers’ profit margins to better than 20 percent. That occasionally brought its own set of conflicts: Think about the San Jose Mercury News caving to car advertisers in the early 1990s or, several years later, the Los Angeles Times’s embarrassment over its unlabeled advertorial for the Staples Center.

Based on my experience in many newsrooms, however, those cases were the exception to the rule. Nor was resisting pressure from big advertisers necessarily as heroic as it looked. Much of the ad revenue at newspapers, in fact, didn’t really come from those big display ads bought by individual companies; it came from sellers of homes, used cars, puppies and kittens. At one point, classified advertising accounted for 30 percent of this newspaper’s revenues, former Washington Post managing editor Robert Kaiser pointed out in an essay for the Brookings Institution.

Many, many electrons already have been spilt by people much more knowledgeable than I am, about how that ad revenue has disappeared and about what digital technology and the ability to micro-target has meant for the media’s bottom line.

For those of us on the media’s front line, however, it has meant this: Many of us are now dependent not on the success of the companies we work for but on the largess of patrons who are willing to take on media companies as loss-leaders.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos rescued The Washington Post. Bloomberg, who got rich selling data to the financial world, has built one of the few media organizations that continues to pay a better-than-living wage. Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson snapped up the Las Vegas Review-Journal, in a transaction the paper had to investigate extensively in order to report the details. Rupert Murdoch controls a global media empire. In my hometown, Richard Mellon Scaife’s estate became caught up in a legal fight over the millions he spent on his Western Pennsylvania-based media operations.

This does not necessarily spell doom. For one thing, as years of covering politics has taught me, greatly flawed people can still do great things. The same goes for institutions. For another, nobody’s ever worked for a purely disinterested publisher. There’s no such thing. Journalism is never going to be done in a conflict-free zone. Whether the underwriter is a corporation or corporate advertisers, a wealthy individual, a nonprofit or a government, everybody’s got an agenda.

But as I have often told journalism students, or members of the public who are curious about (and skeptical of) journalists’ ability to maintain their objectivity and avoid self-censorship: Good journalism is easy. You just need to be willing to bite the hand that feeds you.

That is a whole lot easier to do when you have no dependents and an almost paid-off mortgage. But do we really want our newsrooms staffed only with people like me?

It’s also easier to bite the hand that feeds you when that hand belongs to a faceless company you’re barely aware of because of the fabled (and, increasingly, non-existent) “firewall” between news and business. It’s easier when you’re talking about one revenue source among many corporate accounts. When you are talking about an individual bankroller with a known set of personal preferences, business interests and political agenda, the dilemma becomes much more acute.

All the more reason to tackle it. We live in an era in which the globalization of the economy and the consolidation of wealth have created a new elite class of trans-national, extra-territorial citizens whose finances and agendas are increasingly opaque and hard to regulate. It has created a sense of disentitlement and disenfranchisement that has become a driving issue not only in the U.S. presidential election but also in the politics of other nations. If this new elite controls the media watchdogs, it’s only going to deepen the cynicism eating away at civic society.

We should tip our hats to megawealthy individuals or organizations who, instead of hoarding their vast assets, use them to add to or preserve democracy’s soapboxes — as Ted Turner did with CNN, or Gannett’s Al Neuharth did with USA Today, or Bezos did rescuing this newspaper or Bloomberg did with his eponymous news service. But why create or preserve those jobs and then not let people do them the right way? Even if the brave new media moguls are too hard-nosed to see their loss-leaders as public trusts, they should understand this:  Nothing enhances a media brand like credibility.