Bloomberg News' China Problem

The alleged decision to spike a investigative report into China’s leadership marks a disturbing milestone in the evolution of foreign coverage of the country.
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New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, photographed here with Guangzhou mayor Chen Jianhua, has not commented on whether Bloomberg news spiked a China investigation in order to preserve access in the country. (Keith Bedford/Reuters)

Last weekend, The New York Times and later, The Financial Times reported that, according to Bloomberg News employees, Bloomberg editor in chief Matthew Winkler informed reporters by telephone on October 29 that Bloomberg would not publish their investigative story linking China’s wealthiest men to the country’s top leaders, because of concerns the story would anger the Chinese government and might elicit retribution in the form of denied visas for reporters. Winkler denied the employees’ allegations, telling the Times the stories “were active and not spiked.”

The same day, China’s Foreign Ministry informed journalist Paul Mooney, who has been reporting in China for 18 years, that he would not be granted a journalist visa—a necessary credential for foreigners reporting in China—to work for Reuters.

Both Bloomberg and the Times have had their websites blocked in China and residency visas for new reporters denied since publishing stories on the wealth of the families of China’s leaders last year. The Times story on the family of former premier Wen Jiabao won a Pulitzer Prize. The Times Bloomberg’s “Revolution to Riches” series on the fortunes of leaders including Xi Jinping was awarded Asia Society’s Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Journalism on Asia

We asked ChinaFile contributors for their reactions.—The ChinaFile Editors


John Garnaut, former China correspondent for The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald:

Full credit to the unnamed employees cited in the article and to Ed Wong at the New York Times for getting this back-story out. If Bloomberg doesn’t have the heft and self-respect to stand by the work of the most formidable team of forensic reporters on the planet, then who does? Mr. Winkler now has the opportunity to show that it was all a misunderstanding by publishing the “active” stories in coming weeks. It might save him (and Mr. Bloomberg) from having to dodge questions for the rest of his career about his logic of bending and spiking stories for the satisfaction of Nazi Germany.


Sidney Rittenberg, founder and president of Rittenberg Associates:

You are so right, John.

I think Bloomberg will either self-correct or crumble as a reputable news agency. They should not waste time on inconsequential or murky stories, but to expose major wrongs, especially those that violate Chinese law, Communist Party regulations, and Chinese public morality, is a major contribution to both China and the world.

The Bloomberg Politburo, which should be backing up its fine journalists, seems to have no clue on how to deal with Chinese issues. The reference to Nazi Germany is both monstrously insulting and, for Bloomberg, hopelessly counter-productive. The Bloomberg bureaucracy should be constantly contacting, negotiating, influencing in support of their China teams, not cracking the whip and hardening the resistance.

Those in China who seriously seek reform will definitely benefit from good journalism, both Chinese and international. Any real Marxist should know that ideas and values cannot be unified by pressure, as in Mao's day, because the entire economic base and China's global position have irrevocably changed since then. Only wide and active popular support can enable Xi Jinping/Li Keqiang to break through the opposition of Big SOE conglomerates, Big Banks, and “Big Mules” to carry out the necessary deep-going reforms. Fine journalists like Mike Forsythe and Shai Oster should be viewed as allies, not enemies.

Wake up, Bloomberg—these are the “times that try men's souls!”


Andrew Nathan, Professor of Political Science at Columbia University:

I’ve been banned from China since the publication in 2001 of The Tiananmen Papers, which I coedited—and that wasn’t even the first time—so I’m familiar with the Chinese government’s efforts to shape its image abroad by the use of punishments and rewards, such as the denial or approval of visas, access, and business opportunities. I don’t want to throw stones at Bloomberg—we still don’t know the whole story. But there’s no doubt that the Chinese government has become more coarse and threatening toward all those both abroad and at home who challenge its official stories on history, ethnic relations, the purity of the ruling party, and the rightness of the Chinese dream. Beijing’s treatment of foreigners is related to its treatment of its own people, like the purging of outspoken academics, crackdowns on civil society activists, and perp walks of domestic bloggers and newspaper reporters. This is not just a tactical tightening during the Third Plenum but a long-term trend, using the government’s growing resources of money and power to shape more aggressively what people can say about China.

But why is the Party so anxious to do this? In his August 19 speech to the Thought Propaganda Work Conference, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping described ideology as a battleground between the ruling Party and Western “enemy forces,” a battleground on which defeat would spell the end of CCP rule. For the system to survive, Xi said, the Party must maintain exclusive control of the “right to speak,” intellectuals must bind themselves to the Party, and 1.3 billion Chinese must believe unanimously whatever the Party tells them to believe. A training film for military cadres created by the Chinese National Defense University described the whole range of China’s relations with the outside world as a Western plot to subvert Chinese people’s faith in their own system. The film even warned that exchange visits with the U.S. military would undermine the loyalty of Chinese officers.

Talk about a finger in a dike! These utterances reek of flop sweat. The Party must be feeling very fragile if it believes that the circulation of ideas like constitutionalism, individualism, and human rights; public discussion of events like the Cultural Revolution and June Fourth; and criticisms of extra-legal “black jails” will lead to its overthrow.


Dorinda Elliott, Contributor, ChinaFile:

China’s ability to withhold visas is an extremely powerful weapon, which the Party uses to great effect. The visa question has insidious ways of sowing the seeds of self-censorship. I am ashamed to admit that I personally have worried about the risk of reporting on sensitive topics, such as human rights lawyers: What if they don’t let me back in? My decision to not write that story—at least not yet—proves that I am complicit in China’s control games. After all, there are plenty of other interesting subjects to pursue, right? When I was editor of Asiaweek magazine in 2001, we put Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi on the cover as the region’s most powerful communicator. We knew it would piss off Beijing, but then again, we could do so with little real risk: Our magazine had very little at stake in China. Time magazine, with a significant circulation in China, got banned for publishing a piece about Falun Gong and spent years trying to get back in.

The fact that Paul Mooney, who courageously writes about civil society and China’s downtrodden (his series on the disabled was cited by the Oz Prize jury this year, too), has been refused a visa will probably successfully scare many journalists off of chasing “negative” stories. (The old “kill the chicken to scare the monkeys” tactic proves effective again and again.)

Bloomberg’s apparent skittishness this time around is especially surprising given the fact that the Asia Society’s Oz Prize this year went to Bloomberg for a series on a similar subject. The Oz Prize jury—as Oz’s daughter, I am one of the jurors—recognized Bloomberg not only because the reporting was astonishing, but also because the jurors viewed such exposés as potentially game-changing for China.

Why? Because Chinese journalists can’t do what the Western press can. They receive strict guidance from the Party on what they can and can’t publish. So stories like the ones published last year by Bloomberg matter in China. They quickly circulate among intellectuals and the elite. One might even argue that reports of the massive wealth of powerful families helped prompt Xi Jinping to launch his current attack on corruption.

Andy’s right: We don’t know the whole story about the Bloomberg decision. But its editors can still do the right thing. As an editor who still believes that journalism is a higher calling, with a profound social responsibility, I hope they publish those reports, which Winkler insists are still “active,” in the weeks to come.


Vincent Ni, Europe Correspondent, Caixin Media:

Bloomberg Editor Matthew Winkler reportedly is interested in how foreign journalists worked in Nazi Germany. He might have been looking at tactics foreign correspondents adopted to get information out during Hitler’s rule.

Not long before Hitler’s downfall, another group of Western journalists started to file reports from the Soviet Union. Contrary to what many of us think today, some of their works were rather flattering to the U.S.S.R. According to historians their motives were varied; a few of these journalists genuinely were impressed by Joseph Stalin, while others feared losing access and influence and, potentially, their jobs.

Today these journalists would be labelled “useful idiots”—duped into saying good things about bad regimes. But their number included some eminent figures, such as the 1932 Pulitzer Prize winner Walter Duranty.

When the truth finally emerged about the horrors of Stalin’s regime, many campaigned for the Pulitzer Board to revoke this honor. However, 71 years after the Prize was awarded, the Board finally decided not to do so because “there was not clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception.”

How people in the future look at Bloomberg will depend on what the company does today. Bloomberg essentially is a conglomerate of a financial services company and a data company. Do the interests of one part of the business determine the operation of the other? Details have yet to emerge from this perplexing event, but it will be interesting to see how Bloomberg responds.

What came to mind when I first read about this developing drama is something my journalistic mentor, a veteran Chinese journalist, told me before I entered this industry: Journalism is “a job that requires you to consciously reflect the reality.” Perhaps no one will find out what a writer really thinks during the era in which they write, but the passage of time will reveal their inclinations.

“The difficulty,” as William Dean Howells, another preeminent American journalist put it almost a century ago, “is to know conscience from self-interest.”


Jeremy Goldkorn, founder and director of Danwei:

It’s a shame that Bloomberg and the New York Times are not more willing to put their crack forensic reporters to work on unravelling the links between America’s political elite and its wealthiest citizens, to find out who gained how much from the Iraq war, and who is making a mint from the NSA’s surveillance programs.

But that is not a justification for pulling punches in China—if that’s what Bloomberg actually did. The New York Times did a follow-up story today, quoting Mayor Bloomberg who affirmed Matthew Winkler’s denial that the stories had been spiked:

At the news conference Tuesday, Mr. Bloomberg cited Mr. Winkler’s response, and defended the news service. “No one thinks that we are wusses and not willing to stand up and write stories that are of interest to the public and that are factually correct,” he said.

Maybe things are more complicated than the earlier Times story had us believe: News rooms are noisy, messy places, occupied by people with large egos and differing motivations. Maybe The New York Times even got the whole story wrong? I also sympathize with the challenges of running an information business in China.

However, since 1997 I have edited and published various print periodicals and websites based in Beijing. They have sometimes been shut down, blocked and harassed by the authorities. These enterprises have always brought a far greater personal risk to me than anything that Mr. Winkler is ever likely to encounter in his comfortable Manhattan office. Bloomberg’s own reporters in China and elsewhere have taken plenty of risks to life, limb and career, apparently for the allegedly spiked story, and for other stories that did get published.

So I have to say that that if the New York Times story is true, we can only conclude that Mr. Winkler is, in Mayor Bloomberg’s words, a wuss.

Postscript: After publishing this piece, @roanmartigan on Twitter reminded me that the people who take the biggest risks in the pursuit of foreign media coverage of China are the Chinese news assistants, people who perform thankless tasks often without the benefit of a byline, at low pay, and sometimes at great risk to themselves and sometimes even their families.


Emily Brill, Beijing-based freelance journalist:

Dear Jeremy,

I read your reaction to the recent reports about Bloomberg News and its coverage of China with great interest.

You wrote: “Maybe things are more complicated than the earlier Times story had us believe: News rooms are noisy, messy places, occupied by people with large egos and differing motivations. Maybe The New York Times even got the whole story wrong?”

Huh?

Every story has two sides—and Edward Wong reported both sides. In this story, as Wong explains, you have the four Bloomberg employees on one side describing “the turmoil since October” and Bloomberg's senior/top editors on the other. And, as Wong explains, the four employees “spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs.” In any case, their accounts are one set of facts. Unless Wong is Lara Logan, he likely cross-checked the accounts.

Then, there’s the other side. The top editors. That side is also presented to readers. However, sometimes, a source will react flatfootedly, especially if the journalist is posing questions or raising issues which have never been asked and especially if the source is in an extremely high position of power and/or public figure. Do you think Wong and his colleagues did not approach Winkler et al. ? In fact, they did, and they declined to speak. Quoting from Wong’s report:

Mr. Winkler and several other senior executives at Bloomberg declined to discuss his conference calls with reporters and editors in Hong Kong. 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. 

So, which part, exactly, of the Times' report do you think could be “wrong?”

Moreover, has anyone at Bloomberg asked the Times for corrections? Winkler only said the stories were not killed, but have been held, which is what the Times reported: “The stories are active and not spiked.” Of course, they can say that because now that the Times has published its story, Bloomberg can retrieve the stories from the delete bin and make them “active” or even publish them if the embarrassment at home gets to be more troubling than the pressure they feel in Beijing.


Goldkorn:

Emily,

I think you are reacting to the wrong part of my little text which more or less follows the hoary classical tradition of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The synthesis is calling Mr Winkler is wuss. Read my text again out loud with a sarcastic British accent! 


This post first appeared at ChinaFile, an Atlantic partner site.

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ChinaFile is an online magazine published by Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations. 

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