BLOOMBERG L.P. May Hire an Ombudsman for News Conflicts

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

anyone else.

“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

can’t do.”

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

fiction.”

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

do.”

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.”