Bloomberg News reaffirms ban on writing about Mike Bloomberg
When Michael Bloomberg retires as New York’s mayor in January after 12 years in office, it’s unclear what exactly he’ll do (beyond claiming a desk back at Bloomberg LP, the financial data giant he founded). Whatever he does, he’s sure to keep making news.
You can count on him to keep fighting for new gun-control laws. He could well continue to push his public-health initiatives against sugary drinks and smoking. And he’s certain to make headline-grabbing charitable gifts: He’s worth an estimated $31 billion, and gave $350 million just in 2013 to Johns Hopkins (bringing his lifetime total giving to his alma mater over $1 billion).
But there’s one place you won’t read about any of it: Bloomberg News. Since the creation of its journalism arm in 1990, Bloomberg LP — 85% owned by Mike (as he is referred to at the company and will be referred to here to avoid confusion) — has banned coverage of the company and its owner on the grounds that it would be a conflict of interest. Bloomberg News made a limited exception for covering Mike’s official actions as New York’s mayor. But his return to private life will bring an end to all that.
That’s the result, Fortune has learned, of a decision by Bloomberg News editor-in-chief Matt Winkler to reject an internal recommendation urging the company to change its policy. “I see no reason to change a policy that was conceived at the inception of Bloomberg News, and has served us well,” Winkler told Fortune in late October, during an interview for an in-depth report on Bloomberg LP. (“The trouble at Bloomberg,” subscription required; Fortune is a competitor of Bloomberg News and its magazines.) The company this week confirmed that Winkler’s view will prevail.
Covering yourself, of course, is awkward, but every other major media organization does it anyway. It’s standard journalism practice.
At Bloomberg News, the ban on self-coverage has remained a formal part of The Bloomberg Way, Winkler’s all-encompassing rulebook, even as both the company and its majority shareholder became more newsworthy. Over time, this required ever-greater journalistic contortions.
When Mike became New York’s mayor in 2002, for example, Winkler put a reporter in City Hall. But the coverage sometimes conspicuously excluded criticism of the mayor reported by every newspaper in town, as Editor & Publisher noted in a 2011 story discussing coverage of the mayor’s absence during a paralyzing blizzard.
In 2012, Bloomberg News launched a global billionaires’ list, to rival the annual Forbes ranking. Although Forbes’ most recent version places Michael Bloomberg as the tenth-wealthiest American, with a $31 billion fortune, the mayor doesn’t appear in Bloomberg News’ tally. A special note explains that he “won’t be considered for this ranking” because “Bloomberg News editorial policy is to not cover Bloomberg LP.” Similarly, the company’s coverage of the financial data industry doesn’t include Bloomberg, even though it has the single biggest share of that market.
In August, as part of a formal review of Bloomberg News practices triggered by a scandal in which company journalists were revealed to have special access to certain customer data, Bloomberg editor-at-large Clark Hoyt, a former New York Times ombudsman, advised ending the “no-cover” practice.
Hoyt noted that “other major news organizations take a different approach” and that Bloomberg had, despite its policy, provided one-sided and “extensive” coverage — “far more than competitive news services” — of the company’s own battle to launch a swaps trading platform.
“The coverage,” noted Hoyt, “provided insufficient indication of the Company’s [financial] stake in the outcome,” promoted Bloomberg’s positions in the matter, and lacked “significant coverage of counter-arguments.”
In his list of formal recommendations, Hoyt urged the company to reconsider its policy, while adding that his “preferred course would be for [Bloomberg News] to initiate coverage of the company, stipulating what will and won’t be covered and balancing the desire to cover newsworthy subjects with respect for Bloomberg tradition and culture.”