Is Bloomberg killing investigative stories to stay in China?

November 11, 2013
November 11, 2013

Last year, just as the Chinese government’s new administration was heralding its commitment to stamping out corruption, profiles of the personal wealth and connections of top leaders—one by the New York Times, the other by Bloomberg—exposed the hypocrisy of that goal. The Communist Party has since denied visas to new journalists, blocked the New York Times’s and Bloomberg’s websites, and generally created headaches for foreign media.

Now there’s an allegation that this strong-arm tactic is working, and it puts Bloomberg’s ethical reputation on the line. The New York Times reported last week that Bloomberg had scrapped an investigative report linking China’s richest man with top party officials, as well as another article on children of Chinese leaders working at foreign banks. The Financial Times followed up today (paywall) with similar allegations.

According to both papers, Matt Winkler, Bloomberg’s editor-in-chief, spiked the reports after they had already been fact-checked and vetted by lawyers; he allegedly told reporters on a conference call that if Bloomberg ran stories of that nature, it risked being “kicked out of China.” Winkler and other senior executives say he made no such claim, and suggested that the stories had not been scrapped but merely weren’t yet good enough to publish.

Which version is true—and why—is crucial. If Winkler merely wanted to be sure the investigations were bullet-proof, as he suggests, that would be legitimate, given the pressures on foreign news outlets in China. If he wanted to censor for editorial reasons—i.e., not to run certain stories so that Bloomberg could keep reporting from China—that would be highly contentious, but not without precedent. Winkler reportedly (and he does not dispute the report) told his staff that he had been studying how news organizations were able to keep reporting from Germany during the Nazi era by imposing self-censorship.

However, what makes this a real gunpowder keg is the suggestion that Winkler might have been subject to commercial pressures. The New York Times implies, though without giving any evidence, that Bloomberg is seeking to protect its terminal business, which earns the company most of its money, and which has struggled in China after the government ordered some Chinese companies not to use it.

If Bloomberg does indeed terminate reports for commercial reasons, that would seriously hurt the company’s credibility. Even if it does so for editorial reasons, its reputation is at stake. It “brings into question the service that you [Bloomberg] are supplying,” Jonathan Fenby, a former editor of the South China Morning Post, told the Financial Times. “Bloomberg has been self-censoring in China for how long?” Bill Bishop, a noted China expert, wrote on his Sinocism blog. “Do subscribers know this? What else, and in what other geographies, does Bloomberg self-censor?”

That reporters within Bloomberg were willing to accuse management of censorship to both the New York Times and Financial Times suggests that, at the very least, a deep conflict has arisen over its China coverage. The company will need to do some pretty thorough explaining to reassure its clients.

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