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Evoking empathy or seeking solidarity: Which is preferable when covering people without homes?
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April 14, 2020, 12:13 p.m.
LINK: www.npr.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   April 14, 2020

In the introduction to the 2014 edition of The Bloomberg Way — the combination style guide, reporting bible, and (to its detractors) cult manual for the news operations of Bloomberg — then–editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler describes how Michael Bloomberg convinced him to join the company in 1989.

Bloomberg the company was, at that point, a highly successful data and information business for traders, but Bloomberg the man was interested in getting into journalism, a field in which he had no particular experience. Winkler was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal when he got the call: “Hi, it’s Bloomberg. I need some advice. What would it take to get into the news business?” Winkler had a question of his own:

Mike Bloomberg surprised me when I parried his initial query about what it would take to get into the news business with another question: “All right,” I said. “You have just published a story that says the chairman — and I mean chairman — of your biggest customer has taken $5 million from the corporate till.

He is with his secretary at a Rio de Janeiro resort, and the secretary’s spurned boyfriend calls to tip you off. You get an independent verification that the story is true. Then the phone rings. The customer’s public-relations person says, ‘Kill the story or we will return all the terminals we currently rent from you.'”

“What would you do?” I asked.

“Go with the story,” Mike said. “Our lawyers will love the fees you generate.”

That was the deciding moment.

Fast-forward to today: An NPR investigation details what Winkler and Bloomberg did when that theoretical scenario edged into reality. They didn’t go with the story — they killed it.

Six years ago, Bloomberg News killed an investigation into the wealth of Communist Party elites in China, fearful of repercussions by the Chinese government. The company successfully silenced the reporters involved…

In 2012, [Beijing correspondent Mike] Forsythe was part of a Bloomberg team behind an award-winning investigation into the accumulation of wealth by China’s ruling classes.

The Chinese ambassador warned Bloomberg executives against publishing the investigation. But Bloomberg News published the story anyway. Afterward, Forsythe received what he and his wife, author and journalist Leta Hong] Fincher considered death threats relayed through other journalists. He and Fincher moved their family to Hong Kong, believing it to be safer.

Even so, the reporting team pursued the next chapter, focusing on Chinese leaders’ ties to the country’s richest man, Wang Jianlin. Among those in the reporters’ sights: the family of new Chinese President Xi Jinping. The story gained steam throughout 2013.

In emails sent back to Bloomberg’s journalists in China seen by Fincher, senior news editors in New York City expressed excitement.

And then: radio silence from headquarters. That story never ran.

The demise of that investigation — which Winkler publicly claimed “was not ready for publication” — has been a matter of dispute in the years since.

The fear of angering a rising China with tough reporting or criticism has become a theme of the last decade of high-end American journalism. In 2012, The New York Times had its news — including its new Chinese-language website — blocked in China for reporting on the wealth accumulated by the family of prime minister Wen Jiabao.

More recently, China expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters in February over an unflattering headline on a Journal op-ed. After a Trump administration response, the country announced last month it would expel additional reporters from the Times, the Journal, and The Washington Post. Like technology companies, news organizations have to negotiate the ethical questions that come with engaging with a country at profound odds with democratic ideals.

In most of the publicly known cases — and “publicly known” is an important clause there — news companies do not appear to have acted in direct violation of their values. But Folkenflik’s reporting makes it clear the Bloomberg Way did not guide the actions of Bloomberg’s editors on this China story:

Finally, in late October 2013, Bloomberg’s famously intense founding editor-in-chief, Matthew Winkler, weighed in, via a private conference call. In attendance: senior news executives in New York and the China-based investigative team. NPR has obtained audio of Winkler’s remarks on the call.

“It is for sure going to, you know, invite the Communist Party to, you know, completely shut us down and kick us out of the country,” Winkler said. “So, I just don’t see that as a story that is justified.”

He expressed great apprehension because of the potential consequences of publishing another investigation. In this case, it was one that would itemize the links between top Chinese Communist Party leaders and the country’s wealthiest man.

Winkler returned to those fears repeatedly. “The inference is going to be interpreted by the government there as we are judging them,” Winkler said. “And they will probably kick us out of the country. They’ll probably shut us down, is my guess”…

“There’s a way to use the information you have in such a way that enables us to report, but not kill ourselves in the process and wipe out everything we’ve tried to build there,” he told the reporting team. Bloomberg News and Winkler declined to comment for this story.

The approach extended to Michael Bloomberg, the recent presidential candidate, himself:

“If a country gives you the license to do something with certain restrictions, you have two choices,” Bloomberg told his staff [at a company town hall meeting]. “You either accept the license and do it that way, or you don’t do business there.”

Bloomberg also referred to unnamed “bad apples” in the newsroom.

At a time when most news outlets have been weakened, both financially and as civic institutions, we rely increasingly on the remaining news giants — the big companies that can afford to take a financial hit or pay its lawyers to fight the good fight — to stand up for the right things. A privately held company owned by a man worth $60 billion — more than Wang Jianlin! — is the definition of a company that can afford to take a hit. It appears Bloomberg News and its management fell short here.

A few other excerpts from The Bloomberg Way, for anyone who needs them:

Follow the money. Explaining the role of money in all its forms — from capital flows to executive compensation to the cost of an acquisition to election spending — reveals the meaning of news.

[…]

We avoid conflicts of interest — actual, potential or perceived — political, financial or personal.

[…]

We are often in the difficult position of covering the customers of Bloomberg LP. We do not allow commercial considerations to shade our news judgment because that would undermine our integrity and reputation.

[…]

Bloomberg News does not allow external parties or the commercial interests of Bloomberg LP to dictate our reporting. Altering a story because it may embarrass a company or individual would create the perception that we yield to outside pressure, and that would cost us our integrity.

[…]

Our mission at Bloomberg News requires us to be…

Honest enough to admit our mistakes as soon as we discover them and
diligent enough to correct them.

Thoughtful enough to understand that the sum of us is greater than
our parts.

Humble enough to know we can always do better.

Photo of Wang Jianlin, the billionaire subject of Bloomberg’s killed investigation, at the 2009 World Economic Forum used under a Creative Commons license.

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