Bloomberg News suffered a major disruption over the weekend. The episode predicts the future of the news business, and the death of the news business.
After billionaire and former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg formally entered the race for the Democratic presidential nomination Sunday, Bloomberg agency Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait circulated a memo to editorial and research staff. In it, Micklethwait told staff it would not “investigate” either his owner and boss, or any of his boss’s Democratic opponents:
We will continue our tradition of not investigating Mike (and his family and foundation) and we will extend the same policy to his rivals in the Democratic primaries. We cannot treat Mike’s democratic competitors differently from him.
If Mike Bloomberg had any respect for the news business he would encourage his editorial staff to kick him in the balls at every opportunity. Either that, or he would sell his media business. Or not run for president.
Characteristically, he picked the one path that is most contemptible and destructive, retaining ownership of one of the world’s biggest news outlets just to defang it for the duration of his (incidentally moronic) presidential run. It’s an awesomely selfish act that shows his contempt for the whole idea of journalism.
With this decision, Mike Bloomberg just put the roughly 2,700 journalists who work for him in a terrible ethical bind. If huge portions of the political landscape are closed off to those reporters by fiat, by definition none of their reporting in any other direction can really be legitimate.
It’s appropriate to focus investigative coverage on President Donald Trump. But if this is the only avenue you’re allowed, it’s not news, and reporters aren’t really supposed to put up with such conditions. It amounts to forcing a political directive on the editorial staff.
Bloomberg readers and viewers will have no idea what stories were passed over. They won’t know what facts or narratives are being left out of coverage. It’s a joke.
Bloomberg with this move is the first major news outlet to openly transform into an unidirectional political organ, formalizing a trend I wrote about in a book called Hate Inc. The news landscape has already been divided into a binary coverage paradigm. For-profit media companies have stopped telling their audiences bad news about their political “sides.”
This began in the Nineties with Fox, which realized it could make boatloads of ad dollars selling slanted coverage to the mostly white, politically conservative “55 to dead” demographic that Fox chief Roger Ailes was targeting.
While the station didn’t mind milking fake narratives for profit (Trump’s infamous birther story being a prime example), the biggest deception in Fox was in its non-investigation of Republicans and conservatives.
Fox didn’t have to lie: It just downplayed adverse coverage of politicians its audiences had been trained to support. During its huge ratings surge during the Iraq War, for instance, Fox avoided even belated skeptical coverage of the failed WMD hunt, and covered episodes like Abu Ghraib as if they were liberal plots. The biggest lies were in omitted narratives.
In the summer of 2016, we started seeing an acceleration of the same behaviors in traditionally “mainstream” outlets like MSNBC, CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. Trump was inspiring what many outlets described as a rethink of traditional objective journalism. I worried about where this would lead in August of that year:
The model going forward will likely involve Republican media covering Democratic corruption and Democratic media covering Republican corruption. This setup just doesn’t work.
Once relieved of the burden of at least looking unbiased, editors and reporters inevitably become vulnerable to misinformation, then end up doubling down on wrong narratives. In both the WMD affair and the Russiagate/“Walls are closing in” narrative, news companies were easily led off cliffs because they were working backward from narrative instead of fact.
Worse, when you stop covering your “side,” editors and reporters start pre-selecting stories that come from the “right” perspective. This leads to over-coziness with certain political sources, which in turn leads to a blurring of missions and even language: Reporters start to sound like politicians.
Pop quiz: Which of the following groups of headlines are from a commercial television station, and which were written by the Democratic National Committee?
Watch Jim Jordan Get Smacked Down
Timeline: The Pressure Campaign Against Yovanovich
Debunked: Trump’s Most Laughable Corruption Claim
The Last Time Trump Spoke at the Economic Club, He Lied a Lot
Gotcha: Rudy Giuliani’s “Disorganized Crime”
Trump Boasts About Economy With Many Sectors Reportedly Faltering
Trump Elevates Policy Over National Security
GOP Continues Pushing Ukraine Conspiracy Theory
You can repeat the same exercise with the other “side.” Which of the following headlines were written by Republican operatives, and which by a for-profit news company?
The Results Are In, Schiff Flopped
The African American Community Is Thriving Under Trump
Seeing Red: Democrats Panic as Trump Reshapes Federal Bench
Americans Are Decidedly Out on Impeachment, But That Won’t Stop Democrats
Here’s Why Biden’s Supporters Think He’s Floundering in Iowa
Poll: Independents Flip on Impeachment, Now Vastly Opposed After First Two Weeks of Public Hearings
Democratic Anxiety Rises Over Impending Thanksgiving Anti-Impeachment Ads
Elizabeth Warren Denied Sending Her Kids to Private School Despite Sending Son to Elite Private School
The Bloomberg dictum created to accommodate a grandiose billionaire jumping in the political ring is less of an organic development than the coverage problems at places like Fox or MSNBC. Still, it comes from the same misguided belief that there’s such a thing as credible one-sided reporting, or credible reporting that pre-excuses owners or sponsors from coverage.
For Mike Bloomberg to own a media network for as long as he has without understanding or caring about this is astonishing. He’s been a presidential candidate for just a few days now, and he’s already done tremendous damage by telling voters he thinks it’s OK to buy the free press. And this is the guy who’s going to rescue democracy?
There are many other reasons to distrust Bloomberg’s run, beginning with his appalling record on police issues and his blasé dismissal of critiques of Wall Street corruption, but his aristocratic take on the role of the media — that it may be permitted to look at some things and not others — is already disgusting. God save us from more billionaires with messiah complexes.