On Tuesday, Nov. 6, when voters elected media honcho and
billionaire Michael Bloomberg as the city’s 108th Mayor, they spawned a
scenario destined for the tweedy enclaves of college ethics classes: How does
Bloomberg News cover a city whose policies and economy would now be overseen by
Mr. Bloomberg himself? How could its editors and reporters be objective while
reporting on the man who was once their boss?
“There’s never been a recent situation like this in this country
that I can think of,” said Columbia University
journalism professor Sreenath Sreenivasan.
“There’s definitely an issue here about how Bloomberg [the news service]
handles Bloomberg [the Mayor]. You don’t see a Clinton
news service or a Giuliani news service.”
Nonetheless, Mr. Sreenivasan expects
the people at Bloomberg will work it out. And perhaps Matt Winkler, Bloomberg
News editor in chief, already has.
Mr. Winkler said on Nov. 12 that at least one answer might lie in
the form of an ombudsman.
“It would be someone not working at Bloomberg,” Mr. Winkler said,
“who’d be able to give independent analysis to our coverage. I don’t think it’s
such a bad idea, anyway. Of all the things I’ve heard, it’s one of the best.”
Meanwhile, these are strange days for Bloomberg News, whose
staffers-like the rest of New York-were
caught off-guard by Mr. Bloomberg’s meteoric rise from political neophyte to
head of the largest city in the United States.
Indeed, for most of the campaign, the news operation assumed the position of a
kid in a tornado drill: head down, waiting for someone to say it was over.
Though it reported poll results, Bloomberg News avoided any
original coverage of Mr. Bloomberg or his competition in the Republican Party
primary and the general election. Stories about the race carried via Bloomberg
terminals were restricted to summarizing reports in other publications.
Explaining that approach in the last weeks of the campaign, Mr.
Winkler put it this way: “Because of who he is to the
company, it’s impossible to cover him. And because of that, we can’t cover
“If he wins, he’s Mayor,” Mr. Winkler said then. “Should we get
to that point, we’ll have to look at our coverage and define what we can or
Well, come Jan. 1, he’s Mayor. And poll-shocked Bloombergers have been left to question what that means to
the news division-particularly those in the nearly year-old New York general
news bureau-as their leader meets with the Reverend Al Sharpton
and union chiefs and begins the process of fortifying and rebuilding New York.
“It’s just weird,” one Bloomberg source said. “That’s the only
way to describe it. It might be good for the city, but I don’t know what it
means for us.”
Said another: “Everyone was shocked. I
think we all were in denial. Matt’s a tough journalist, but I don’t think he
thought about it very much. He’s probably thinking about it now.”
Adding to the general uncertainty were stories on Sunday in the London Observer and then in Monday’s New York Post , which restarted an old
rumor that Thomson Corporation, owner of the Thomson Financial news network,
had made an overture to buy all of Bloomberg L.P.-the news division included.
“I can’t say there’s anything
to it,” Mr. Winkler said on Nov. 12. “I’d be shocked if I didn’t know anything
about it. It was reported in one of the British newspapers, right? Then I don’t
need to say any more …. They’re entertaining, but they also produce a lot of
For his part, Mr. Winkler said that he was fully prepared for
either outcome to the election and was confident in his
troops’ ability, ombudsman or no, to report stories concerning
the man under whose name they toil. He said a strict adherence to Bloom-berg’s just-the-facts-ma’am
style-detailed in the 300-plus pages of the company’s stylebook, and pummeled
into reporters in weeks of training sessions-was key.
In addition, he said, stories concerning Mr. Bloomberg will include disclaimers
as a way of “vaccinating the reporting.”
As for the personnel issues raised in
the days immediately after the election, Mr. Winkler met with those directly
affected by the election-the editors and writers of the 17-person metro news
desk. Headed by longtime Daily News editor
Rich Rosen, the desk includes former Philadelphia
Inquirer New York City bureau chief Henry Goldman, who now has the uneasy
task of covering City Hall.
In speaking with them, Mr. Winkler said he answered questions,
praised the work they’d done and tried to reassure them that “there’s still a
place here for the kind of work they’ve been doing.”
“If I have doubts about a certain type of reporting,” Mr. Winkler
said, “it’s this: something along the lines of Clinton-Lewinsky,
Round 2. We can’t do the personal-life stuff; it’s fraught with danger. Policy, institutional stories, serious stuff-that’s what we can
Nevertheless, being a Bloomberg reporter means something
different from what it did a year ago. During the campaign, Bloombergers
suddenly found themselves playing the role of political seismologists. With
interviewees and people they met on the street and at parties, often the first
question they were asked was, “You think he can win?”
Said one source: “My parents were even asking me that.”
Now the question will become, “So how do you think he’s doing?”
“Life’s a bitch,” Mr. Winkler said. “Jackie Robinson said the
same thing. We’re put in a tougher spot than our peers and competitors, but
that just means we have to be more rigorous and professional about the way we
do things. We’re not about to change our name.”