January 28, 2016

Within hours of a recent New York Times story that revealed multi-billionaire Michael Bloomberg was considering a run for the nation’s highest office, journalists began wondering how his candidacy would affect Bloomberg News, the media arm of the company he founded.

Now, less than a week after the original report, they’re beginning to get an answer. The company’s newsroom, which avoids covering Bloomberg’s personal life and wealth, has produced slight coverage of his possible presidential run. On Monday, The Huffington Post reported that a possible Bloomberg run would put the news organization in a tricky spot, noting that marquee political journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann would be “expected to report on the behind-the-scenes details of the presidential race, and to analyze the various contenders’ chances.”

The internal debate at Bloomberg News produced its first casualty Wednesday when Kathy Kiely, the Washington news director for Bloomberg Politics, resigned over concerns that the company wasn’t covering Bloomberg’s run aggressively enough.

“The bottom line is, you can’t cover the circus unless you can write about one of the biggest elephants in the room,” Kiely told The Huffington Post.

A spokesperson for Bloomberg News told Poynter that Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait is in charge of decisions about coverage. A company spokesperson told HuffPost that Bloomberg News has covered the speculation about Bloomberg’s potential run “every day since the Times story was published.”

Below is a question-and-answer session with Kelly McBride, vice president of The Poynter Institute and its media ethicist, on whether Bloomberg News is justified in offering only limited coverage of its founder.

Let’s get right down to it: Should Bloomberg News do more to cover the presidential aspirations of Michael Bloomberg? Why or why not?

Bloomberg News can’t sit this one out, if it goes much further. The presidential nomination contest is the biggest ongoing national story going right now. If Michael Bloomberg steps into the race, he will be a huge player. Given that Bloomberg News already does fabulous coverage, their political reporters would have to give their boss a lot of serious scrutiny. If they ignore him, they make themselves impotent.

Bloomberg’s decision thus far to give a Michael Bloomberg run short shrift will become increasingly impractical if his candidacy picks up steam. Is there a point where their reporters would be forced to abandon this stance and cover him aggressively?

If he announces as a serious candidate, that’s the point of no return. But I would say that even before that, if Michael Bloomberg doesn’t say “no way” in the next few days, he’s impacting the campaign. Iowa votes on Monday. So by Friday, Bloomberg political reporters need to be all-in or concede that their coverage is incomplete.

If Bloomberg decides to cover the big boss aggressively, what steps should they take to make sure their coverage is totally aboveboard?

A top editor has to state publicly that the news organization has a detailed plan for insuring the independence of their reporters. Then, the political team has to come up with a detailed approach, which they also make public. It would help to have an outside advisor who could weigh in and hold them accountable. Poynter faculty and other professors have done that work in the past. It’s reassuring the to the public and it provides an internal sense of security as you are making day-to-day decisions.

Are there advantages to avoiding the subject of Michael Bloomberg? If so, what are they?

Well, it’s easier to just close off the conflict of interest and not report on it. But it’s kind of a cop out.

What are the disadvantages to being owned by a billionaire with major stakes politics and business, which are two big coverage areas for Bloomberg News?

It’s so easy for the boss to influence coverage. Ever since Bloomberg stepped down from being mayor he’s had his hand at the helm of the Bloomberg News and it has a decided impact. Even if they don’t act on them, employees are going to be acutely aware of his political leanings, his personal agendas and his alliances. It becomes background noise in a bad way.

Is there a precedent for dealing with this kind of conflict of interest? What are some instructive models of news organizations who handle this well?

There’s hundreds of precedents on the local level, but they are all good precedents. It used to be that almost every newspaper and television station was owned by a local family. And many still are. Some of those do a good job covering their owners. But most take the Bloomberg approach, to the detriment of their audience. When powerful people aren’t scrutinized by journalists, the public suffers. Now, Bloomberg News would argue that there are lots of other news organizations covering Michael Bloomberg, and that may not have been true on a local level. The Washington Post has done a pretty good job covering Amazon, even though they share the same owner Jeff Bezos. And non-profit news organizations must sometimes cover their funders and donors, although that’s slightly different.

This is a much bigger problem on the local level where you don’t have a plethora of journalistic options.

Benjamin Mullin, a staff writer at Poynter, contributed to this report.

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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