Journalism shouldn’t be modern billionaires’ problematic pet project

Hannah Holliday | Cartoonist

Bloomberg News’ decision to kill a 2013 investigation into China’s richest man was back in the news this week. Parent company Bloomberg LP is a juggernaut in the world of financial software owned by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. When its news network’s reporters probed too deep into Chinese political circles, the company feared the Chinese government would target its business ventures as punishment and quashed the investigation. Profit trumped the pursuit of truth.

Bloomberg LP’s interference in the story violated one of the core tenets of journalism. The wall between journalism and business in a media company – or separation of church and state as it’s sometimes known – is critical to preserve a publication’s integrity. Normally this refers to keeping advertising and editorial content separate, but Bloomberg News’ actions should prompt a much broader reading. Cutting stories because of their negative effect on business is a form of censorship, and the possibilities become ever-more concerning as the media landscape consolidates.

Michael Bloomberg isn’t the only billionaire to break into the news business. Print media is in decline, and investment from wealthy elites and business owners can be a lifeline for struggling publications. Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett bought more than 30 newspapers before agreeing to sell them all early this year. Red Sox owner John Henry purchased The Boston Globe in 2013, and biomedical entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong bought the Los Angeles Times in 2018. Perhaps the most high-profile of these ventures is Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of The Washington Post in 2013.

This decade-long shopping spree raises concerns about conflicts of interest. When casino magnate and political megadonor Sheldon Adelson purchased The Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2015 his identity was initially kept secret and had to be uncovered by the paper’s own reporters. Departing staff in the months following Adelson’s buyout commonly complained of reduced editorial freedom.

The story on the Chinese oligarch finally ran in the New York Times in 2015, but only after reporter Michael Forsythe was fired by Bloomberg and forced to rereport much of the story. Forsythe was also bound by a nondisclosure agreement preventing him from talking about his time with Bloomberg News.

It was through Forsythe’s wife Leta Hong Fincher that the story could be told from a firsthand perspective. Bloomberg News lawyers tried and failed to get Fincher to sign a nondisclosure agreement. When then-candidate Bloomberg was pressed on the use of nondisclosure agreements, Fincher came forward with her own experience. There’s no telling what other stories have been stamped out throughout the industry by ill-intentioned higher-ups whose priorities rest outside the realm of reporting.

This country’s Founding Fathers recognized the need for a free and open press. Protections for the press from government interference are enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment, but no such boundaries are required within private companies. As long as business interests are allowed to seep into newsrooms, the greatest threat to objective journalism in the 21st century is not censorship from outside but from within.