Is Mike Bloomberg the next William Randolph Hearst, a tycoon who mixes media and politics, influencing the course of the nation? Bloomberg has the money and the opportunity; we know he wants a seat at the policy table.
In a recent piece, The New York Times says that the former New York City mayor is involving himself in the editorial activities of Bloomberg LP. The Grey Lady sounds concerned, and rightly so. Just as Mr. Bloomberg won unlikely election as mayor of a heavily Democrat city by skipping through the political middle, he could also steer Bloomberg’s news operation in between the left-leaning Times and right-sided Dow Jones, ending up where a great many Americans reside. It would be a fitting and satisfying next step for the successful financier and politician, who is clearly not ready to retire.
The Times is vulnerable to a well-heeled competitor — and especially one well established internationally, online and on television — the latter a forum the NYT has never successfully penetrated. Bloomberg, a private company, racked up more than $8 billion in revenues last year, and earned nearly $3 billion in profit. That’s compared to a little more than $2 billion in revenues for the Times, and about $150 million in profit. While the vast majority of Bloomberg sales (and nearly all its profit) comes from its data terminal business, which is currently in stall mode, those gizmos favored by Wall Street traders have funded the growth of a substantial news organization.
How substantial? In a recent piece by Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, Executive Editor Jill Abramson extols the paper’s “huge” 1,250-person newsroom staff, noting that it is twice that of the Washington Post's. Bloomberg’s news division has more than 2,000 editorial employees.
But, it’s not all about numbers. It is also about positioning. The New York Times has become more liberal over time, derided on the right these days as a virtual mouthpiece for the Obama White House. The paper has not endorsed a Republican for president since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956; the nod has gone to the Democrat candidate in every election since.
It’s not just those on the right that see the paper as tilting left — former ombudsman Daniel Okrent wrote a farewell piece in 2004 describing the paper as slanted liberal, especially on topics like gay marriage. As he said, rather gingerly, “On a topic that has produced one of the defining debates of our time, Times editors have failed to provide the three-dimensional perspective balanced journalism requires.” He noted that the paper unintentionally tends to “tell only the side of the story your co-religionists wish to hear,” but adds that “negligence doesn't have to be intentional.”
Another departing public editor, Arthur Brisbane, made a similar confession as he exited the paper a year and a half ago. He admitted “the hive on Eighth Avenue is powerfully shaped by a culture of like minds,” a “kind of political and cultural progressivism” that leads to “developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage” being treated “more like causes than news subjects.” And, this is from the inside.
The Times’ progressivism doesn’t match up well with attitudes of most Americans. The Left celebrated a recent Gallup poll showing an all-time high in the number of people identifying themselves as liberal. The record made headlines and overshadowed the reality; only 24 percent of those surveyed call themselves liberal, way below the 38 percent that call themselves conservative and the 34 percent who are self-proclaimed moderates. Liberalism may have inched up, and is surely running high in New York City, but it’s still a distinct minority across the country.
A minority that The Times taps into, leaving the vast political middle of the country open for grabs — an opportunity Mr. Bloomberg may intend to seize. The Times reports that instead of taking vacation, the former mayor has been showing up at 7:30 am editorial meetings of Bloomberg LP, apparently expressing opinions about which stories interested him.
The Times claims that employees of Bloomberg LP are “worried…that the division’s editorial independence could be called into question.” The piece scolds that “Generally, the owners of news organizations try to avoid any appearance of influencing coverage, particularly when they have political affiliations.”
Is it Bloomberg employees who are wary, or is it the editorial staff of The New York Times? Hard to know, since, as is its custom these days, The Times quotes an employee who “spoke on the condition of anonymity.” Adding a little zest, the writer notes that at a recent meeting between Mike, as he is called, and the staff of BusinessWeek, someone asked if he might be interested in buying The New York Times. Mr. Bloomberg joked that he would not, “partly because he would not be able to influence the coverage.” He’s got that right; hives are not welcoming.
Should Mike take a hands-off approach to his eponymous news operation? It’s hard to see why he should. Mike Bloomberg has built a multi-billion business, and has served three terms as a much-respected mayor of New York City. Surely his views are as reasonable and informed as those of The Times’ Executive Editor Jill Abramson, who has never worked outside the media sphere and who spent an entire year writing about the “challenges and satisfactions” of raising her Golden Retriever puppy.
The integrity of a news operation stems not from the background of the people directing the gathering and reporting of news, but rather from their objectivity. Mr. Bloomberg doubtless carries his views on gun control and sugary beverages into his newsroom visits; if he bends Bloomberg News in a particular direction — that will be par for the course these days.
The media is not objective. In a Pew poll, some 76 percent of those surveyed said that news organizations “tend to favor one side” and 58 percent described those outfits as politically biased. More generally, two-thirds of the country thinks that the media covers trivial stories, and is chronically inaccurate. There is indeed an opportunity here; to the dismay of The New York Times, and other competitors, Mr. Bloomberg may well seize it.
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