Drive free or die

By ADAM REILLY  |  June 27, 2007

Amid the hoopla, though, one media outlet demonstrated remarkable restraint: Bloomberg L.P., the financial-media behemoth that was founded by Bloomberg in 1981 and that helped him amass his $5.5 billion personal fortune. The entity includes Bloomberg News, Bloomberg Radio, and Bloomberg Television, and its majority owner is still none other than Michael Bloomberg. (Surprisingly, no legal arrangement exists mandating Bloomberg’s non-involvement with Bloomberg L.P.)

The day after Bloomberg’s announcement, for example, a Bloomberg News write-up didn’t use the word “president” until the fourth paragraph, and immediately quoted Bloomberg brusquely dismissing such speculation. Later, the story quoted two political analysts, Charlie Cook and Stuart Rothenberg, arguing that a Bloomberg presidential run was hardly a done deal. And as NPR’s David Folkenflick subsequently noted, Bloomberg Radio’s Money & Politics program spent less than a minute on the implications of the mayor’s party switch.

Over the next few months, the journalists of Bloomberg will have plenty of opportunities to prove that they can cover Bloomberg himself — and his campaign, if it comes to that — objectively and aggressively. Which is, of course, a gentle way of saying that this problem isn’t going away. Every time Bloomberg News reports on Bloomberg the man, that coverage could help or hinder his political prospects. In fact, the quandary gets thornier: whenever Bloomberg News reports on one of the declared or potential Democratic and Republican presidential candidates — a group of more than 20, if you include Fred Thompson, Newt Gingrich, and Al Gore — Bloomberg’s own political stock could be affected.

The great irony here is that Bloomberg L.P.’s rise has been driven by a culture that abhors journalistic subjectivity. As Slate media critic Jack Shafer wrote last year, some of Bloomberg’s stories are actually composed by machines (auto-generated from data feeds). The human-generated stories, Shafer noted, “are only slightly warmer to the touch. Many are written to an old template that requires lede sentences to contain a number. Words such as ‘but’ (too abrupt), ‘flat’ (markets aren’t curved, how can they be flat?), and ‘uncertainty’ (markets move for a reason) are subject to banishment by editors.”

Right now, the line from Bloomberg L.P. is that the company’s ethos will be enough to guarantee fair coverage for Bloomberg and his potential rivals. “Bloomberg News, which has won hundreds of awards and honors from its peers for its fair and objective reporting and its investigative reporting, adheres to the strictest standards of attribution and objectivity,” Judith Czelusniak, Bloomberg L.P.’s head of PR, told the Phoenix via e-mail. “We cover every issue according to these standards.”

Sounds good, until you realize that Czelusniak is essentially saying that Bloomberg L.P. will cover Bloomberg objectively because it covers everything objectively. The problem, obviously, is that Bloomberg’s relationship with Bloomberg L.P. is utterly unique: while he “has no involvement with the company,” according to Czelusniak, he founded it and retains an ownership stake of nearly 70 percent.

What’s more, Bloomberg News’ track record in covering Bloomberg the man is hardly inspiring. When Bloomberg ran for mayor of New York in 2001, Bloomberg News simply took a pass on doing original reportage on the race, instead offering “tepid summaries,” as Jane Gottlieb put it in the Columbia Journalism Review, of stories from other outlets. Then, after Bloomberg was elected, Bloomberg News hired then–Columbia Journalism School dean Tom Goldstein to monitor its coverage of the mayor — an arrangement that raised even more questions, since Columbia, as an institution doing business with New York City, has an obvious interest in getting along with the mayor. (Interesting footnote: in 2005, Bloomberg L.P. began underwriting Columbia’s Bloomberg College Editors’ Leadership Workshop.)

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