Analyzing Bloomberg’s self-censoring its China coverage
The New York Times published a story during the weekend saying that Bloomberg News was self-censoring its coverage of China. Bloomberg won an award for its coverage of the wealth being amassed by Communist party leaders and now, according to the story, it was pulling back on publishing a similar story. Bloomberg denied the story was dead.
But the allegations that a new organization was voluntarily not publishing a story in order to remain in the country raises many concerns about Western news agencies’ abilities to work inside the tightly controlled country.
Here’s the beginning of the Times story.
The decision came in an early evening call to four journalists huddled in a Hong Kong conference room. On the line 12 time zones away in New York was their boss, Matthew Winkler, the longtime editor in chief of Bloomberg News. And they were frustrated by what he was telling them.
The investigative report they had been working on for the better part of a year, which detailed the hidden financial ties between one of the wealthiest men in China and the families of top Chinese leaders, would not be published.
In the call late last month, Mr. Winkler defended his decision, comparing it to the self-censorship by foreign news bureaus trying to preserve their ability to report inside Nazi-era Germany, according to Bloomberg employees familiar with the discussion.
“He said, ‘If we run the story, we’ll be kicked out of China,’ ” one of the employees said. Less than a week later, a second article, about the children of senior Chinese officials employed by foreign banks, was also declared dead, employees said.
Mr. Winkler said in an email on Friday that the articles in question were not killed. “What you have is untrue,” he said. “The stories are active and not spiked.”
His statement was echoed by the senior editor on the articles, Laurie Hays.
Mr. Winkler and several other senior executives at Bloomberg declined to discuss his conference calls with reporters and editors in Hong Kong.
Several Bloomberg employees in Hong Kong said Mr. Winkler made clear in his call that his concerns were primarily about continuing to have reporters work in China, not protecting company revenues. Even so, they said, he gave the listeners a clear impression that the company was in retreat on aspects of its coverage of the world’s second-largest economy, a little more than a year after it locked horns with a confident Chinese leadership that has shown itself willing to punish foreign news organizations that cross it.
Bloomberg News infuriated the government in 2012 by publishing a series of articles on the personal wealth of the families of Chinese leaders, including the new Communist Party chief, Xi Jinping. Bloomberg’s operations in China have suffered since, as new journalists have been denied residency and sales of its financial terminals to state enterprises have slowed. Chinese officials have said repeatedly that news coverage on the wealth and personal lives of Chinese leaders crosses a red line.
The Financial Times followed the story and added some details from emails between Bloomberg reporters and editors.
Bloomberg’s decision not to print the story comes as China becomes even more aggressive in clamping down on the foreign media. Bloomberg’s website has been blocked since last year when it published an exposé on the wealth accumulated by relatives of Xi Jinping, China’s president. It is also having trouble getting journalist visas for reporters.
Censors have also blocked access to the website of the New York Times, which published a similar story last year about then Premier Wen Jiabao. The paper has had difficultly obtaining some journalist visas since then.
But the person familiar with the discussions between senior editors in the US and the team in Hong Kong said the story had been approved and just needed a Chinese government response.
“We had crossed the Rubicon,” said the person. “The story was fully edited, fact checked and vetted by the lawyers.”
The person added that senior editors in the US had given strong support all along to Michael Forsythe and Shai Oster, the two reporters who led the large team chasing the story. But, in October, they suddenly changed their mind, and said the story was not fit for publication.
“They said they were putting it on the backburner, but it was blindingly clear that it was being killed,” the person said.
On September 18, Laurie Hays, one of Bloomberg’s top editors in New York, wrote an email to the reporters in Hong Kong, which said the latest version of the story was “almost there” and that once she and other editors, including a managing editor Jonathan Kaufman, had taken a close read, they would review it with the company’s lawyers.
Nine days later, Mr Kaufman emailed the reporters to say the story was “terrific”. In the email, which was obtained by the FT, he wrote: “The story is terrific. I am in awe of the way you tracked down and deciphered the financial holdings and the players. It’s a real revelation. Looking forward to pushing it up the line.”
However, four weeks later, Ms Hays called the reporters in Hong Kong to tell them that the story was going to be put on the “backburner”, according to the person familiar with the situation.
The Atlantic wrote a piece calling the decision not to publish “craven” and stating that confident governments would allow reporters to freely cover their countries.
If the front page story today in the NYT is right, Bloomberg has made a craven decision that calls its larger credibility into question. According to the Times article, Bloomberg managers in New York decided to squash stories by their (aggressive) China-based reporters for fear of angering the Chinese government. The less-damaging rationale for this decision is Bloomberg’s concern that its reporters might be kicked out of China. The more-damaging suspicion is that the company was worried that it would lose subscribers in China for its cash-cow Bloomberg financial terminals.
Maybe this NYT story is off — though in the 24 hours since it’s appeared there has been no substantive response from Bloomberg (other than “it’s not so”), and the NYT account from Beijing is by the reputable Edward Wong (whom I know and trust). But at face value this is a really depressing illustration of a “news” organization knuckling under in the face of economic pressure. That’s how Bloomberg’s China reporters must feel as well: otherwise how would this case ever have gotten out? A nice way for Bloomberg to counter these suspicions would be to run the controversial stories in question — as it has done in the past with strong China stories.
Meanwhile, let’s not lose sight of the larger point: Bloomberg is (apparently) wrong for acquiescing, but the real problem is obviously with the parts of the Chinese government that are afraid of what domestic and international reporters would say. Which brings us to the day’s second bit of downbeat news: the Chinese government’s refusal to renew a visa for Paul Mooney, a well-respected reporter who has spent his career covering Asia. Apparently the government didn’t like his tone about Tibet. This is part of a much more widespread pattern of making it hard for international journalists to get into China.
None of this bodes will for Western news outlets trying to work in China, marking another blow to free press around the globe.