Michael Bloomberg’s decision to run for the Democratic Party’s nomination for US president poses some thorny questions around impartiality for the editors who run Bloomberg News. Following his announcement this month that he will seek the Democrat nomination, Bloomberg editor-in-chief John Micklethwait posted a memo to staff outlining the possible conflicts posed by Mr. Bloomberg’s decision and explaining the news organisation’s response in terms of a new operating approach. The memo offers a fascinating insight into the machinations of the Bloomberg news organisation, and a glimpse into the challenges faced by news teams when their owner enters politics in a big way.
Of course, Mr. Bloomberg is no stranger to politics. He ran as mayor of New York City for three terms, and Bloomberg News adapted to accommodate his role then, as Micklethwait’s memo points out. But it goes without saying that it’s a massive leap from mayor of New York to president of the United States, and should he be successful in his plight – unlikely, according to many pundits – it’s far from clear that continued ownership of the news service would be viable or publicly acceptable.
Indeed, Mr. Bloomberg’s decision to run seems to add grist to the mill that Bloomberg LP – the financial data mothership that owns Bloomberg News – is being prepared for a sale. We suggested as much in these pages just a few months ago, when we reported that InterContinental Exchange (ICE) was preparing for a bid. Since then – and following conversations with industry observers in London and New York – speculation has grown that others may be interested in taking over Bloomberg LP. These include the likes of Amazon and Google, often the subject of speculation of a raid on the financial data industry by a FAANG.
Whether an approach from a suitor emerges remains to be seen. And a wholesale divestiture of the Bloomberg LP properties may not be necessary, even if Mr. Bloomberg goes the whole way. In what would be an ironic twist to the story, Bloomberg could opt to spin off the news organisation to a third party while retaining the core data business, in a kind of reverse Refinitiv manoeuvre. Refinitiv – the former market data and infrastructure business of Thomson Reuters – was spun out of its parent, with the Reuters news organisation remaining with the Thomson family.
There’s a long way to go, though, before Democratic nominee Michael Bloomberg (‘The Michael’) is forced to shed the news organisation that bears his name as he takes on Donald Trump (‘The Donald’) in a bid for the presidency. As Micklethwait writes: “If Mike is chosen as the Democratic presidential candidate (and Donald Trump emerges as the
Republican one), we will reassess how we [handle investigations of the Administration].”
Until then, Micklethwait and his team have laid out a plans – not dissimilar to the one deployed when Mr. Bloomberg was mayor – for countering charges of partiality. The thrust of Micklethwait’s memo is that Bloomberg News (and particularly its Bloomberg Opinion section) will refrain from any investigative reporting of Michael Bloomberg or any of his Democratic nomination rivals. Only where a third-party news outlet has reported the results of an investigation will Bloomberg make note of it, a reprise of the stance the organisation took when Mr. Bloomberg was mayor.
Bloomberg has assigned a reporter to cover Mr. Bloomberg’s run for the Democratic nomination (as it did for his tenure at City Hall). But Micklethwait is restructuring the Bloomberg News team to place “special responsibility for overseeing our news coverage of Mike and his rivals (and the questions that may occur about this election all the way round the world)” with chief content officer Marty Schenker (whom we know from The Wall Street Journal, where he worked alongside Bloomberg News founder Matthew Winkler).
The memo contains some interesting nuggets on Bloomberg’s overall approach to dealing with itself and its competition (primarily Reuters/Refinitiv). Micklethwait, for instance, attributes Bloomberg’s reputation for independence “in part [to] not writing about ourselves (and very rarely about our direct competitors).”
Micklethwait attempts to stave off criticism of the policy with the following: “To those who would rather that we did not write about Mike at all, I would reply that Bloomberg News has handled these conflicts before – and proved our independence. We are following the same policy we have applied to Bloomberg LP and our direct rivals in the financial markets and media: we report on but do not investigate Reuters and CNBC.”
Micklethwait’s stance and plan of action has attracted some criticism, however, with some detractors calling for Mr. Bloomberg to sell off his media assets. Certainly, his decision to run casts sharp focus on his continued ownership, particularly on the news operations.