Bloomberg's rise in the polls has invited fresh scrutiny of his wealth and his record as a businessman and mayor of New York City. Bloomberg News can only look so close, however, after declaring it would cover his campaign but not investigate it — rules that were extended to his Democratic rivals out of fairness.
For the most part, Bloomberg journalists are doing exactly what the company said it would — for better or worse. “There are many, many reporters who have to cover their boss, and for most of them, it's a point of pride to beat their competition,” said Kelly McBride, head of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the journalism think tank Poynter Institute. “In this situation, it's like they're deliberately trying to lose to their competition.”
To a certain extent, Bloomberg is relying on its competitors for some of its coverage. In the same policy pronouncement, the service said it would continue to aggressively cover Republican President Donald Trump's administration. The Trump campaign swiftly responded by refusing to credential Bloomberg reporters at campaign events. Reporter Jennifer Jacobs was escorted out of a Trump rally earlier this month in Iowa.
The news service, started in 1990 to join Bloomberg's thriving business selling financial information, would not make its executives or editors available to speak to The Associated Press. It has filed some 800 news and opinion pieces on the presidential campaign since Bloomberg announced his candidacy in November.
Bloomberg News reported Thursday on how the boss was beaten up in his first Democratic debate, which included Elizabeth Warren's challenge that he release women from nondisclosure agreements signed to settle complaints against the company for sexual harassment and a hostile work environment.
The story even quoted Trump, who twice tweeted that Bloomberg had the worst debate performance in history. Like most stories that mention the boss, the debate write-up included a parenthetical phrase that makes the business relationship clear. It reads: “Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.”
Articles about climate control and gun legislation similarly contain disclaimers about Bloomberg's philanthropy in those areas. Most of the service's political stories cover the basics of endorsements, campaign spending, advertising and issue announcements. One veteran Washington hand says deep-dive investigations aren't Bloomberg's strength anyway.
“Their reputation is solid, centrist to center-right, but not as the first go-to source of news or investigations,” said Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. “They're not known for their scoops, but they're not disrespected in any way.”
As the debate coverage illustrated, the service has not hidden news unflattering to Bloomberg's campaign. Two such stories emerged in the past week, when Bloomberg's words defending his “stop-and-frisk” police policy in a 2015 appearance were unearthed and when The Associated Press wrote about Bloomberg's views on the discriminatory “redlining” housing policy.
Bloomberg reporter Mark Niquette has written about Warren calling on Bloomberg to divest from his company's news division “so there's no question about his influence” over campaign coverage. Niquette also wrote about a complaint from one of Bloomberg's former mayoral opponents, Mark Green, to the Federal Communications Commission, arguing that Bloomberg News coverage amounted a campaign contribution.
Bloomberg News claims some beats on the campaign trail, including stories about Trump supporters clogging phone lines used to report Iowa results and the resignation of Iowa's Democratic party chairman after the caucus debacle.
Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, said she fears less that reporters are being held back internally than externally, where some readers feel the name of their organization speaks more about their independence than the work they do.
“That is so difficult for journalists to handle,” she said. “No matter how hard you try to be fair in reporting, people bring their own biases.” There's been no indication that Bloomberg has been favored with undue attention. Through Feb. 14, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Warren were mentioned more in stories than Bloomberg, according to data provided by the company.
Despite predictions of an exodus of journalists when the policy was announced, the only noted defection has been national political writer Sahil Kapur to a similar job at NBC News Digital. Some Bloomberg reporters are clearly uncomfortable working with the new policy and concerned about what it might mean for their own and their company's professional reputations, said one journalist who works at Bloomberg News but spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not speaking for the company.
The company's policy has long been not to cover news about itself or do stories about Bloomberg's personal life or wealth. When the campaign policy was announced, Bloomberg News published the company's memo but — following policy — has not allowed its reporters to write about it.
The rule about discussing the boss' wealth makes for a particularly delicate dance. Niquette has written about Bloomberg's ability to spend on staff and advertising and picked up reporting from The New York Times that the candidate was doubling his ad budget and staff following the inconclusive Iowa results. Per company policy, Bloomberg's net worth isn't revealed, keeping from readers a key indication of his ability to spend.
“Make no mistake, Michael Bloomberg's wealth is a central issue in this campaign and if Bloomberg News is constrained in reporting on that, it's a problem,” Culver said. The Washington Post and New York Times published investigative pieces on Bloomberg during Presidents Day weekend — the Post examining allegations of sexist comments and the Times tracing how he built an “empire of influence” through philanthropy to causes popular with Democrats.
Bloomberg News offered both stories to readers, illustrating its promise to highlight on its website in-depth or investigative stories about candidates written by other news organizations. Despite solid day-to-day coverage, the service rarely originates or expands upon such projects, said Kathy Kiely, a former politics editor at Bloomberg who now teaches journalism at the University of Missouri. It is also light on enterprise efforts, which seek to break news, she said.
“There are lots of stories that journalists can do that can add context and perspective for citizens that are looking for information, and these are the stories that I see missing from the Bloomberg menu,” Kiely said.
That's unfortunate, since Bloomberg News' strength is its financial coverage, and it has expertise it could bring to bear on Bloomberg's business record, Poynter's McBride said. As a company, Bloomberg News needs to ask, “Are our values more important than our self-interest?” McBride said. She supported the idea of Bloomberg appointing an editor with independence and authority to shape campaign coverage.
For executives, the policy put in place in November attempted to deal with the realities of a seemingly can't win situation: No matter how much independence is stressed, some in opposing campaigns will always suspect the service is a stalking horse for candidate Bloomberg.
And what kind of professional future results from making the boss mad? “It's hard,” Kiely said. “But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try.”