What's at Stake in Bloomberg's China Coverage
The company's alleged refusal to offend the Chinese Communist Party reveals the limitations of "journalistic access."
Last June, Bloomberg News published a major investigative report into the wealth of the family of Xi Jinping, now China's president. The report, written by two well-respected Bloomberg reporters, Mike Forsythe and Shai Oster, tracked the parallel rise of Xi's political career and that of his extended family's business empire, which had accumulated $376 million in assets. Though the article did not allege any wrongdoing, its discoveries illuminated the symbiotic relationship between wealth and power in China, where the elite goes to great lengths to conceal the extent of their prosperity.
The report was groundbreaking. Widely praised around the industry, Bloomberg News clearly saw the piece as a feather in its cap; a major accomplishment for a still-fledgling news organization. When Amanda Bennett, an executive editor for projects and investigations, announced her resignation last week, she cited the investigation into Xi Jinping's family wealth as the work she was "most proud of."
For the Chinese government, which regards the wealth of top officials a taboo subject, the report triggered an immediate reaction: Bloomberg News was censored on the mainland. But the blowback didn't end there. In addition to the site's censorship, sales of Bloomberg terminal subscriptions, the financial information portals which provide a huge amount of revenue for the company, temporarily slumped in China. And the family of Forsythe, one of the journalists responsible for the article, even received death threats.
This year, Forsythe and Oster completed work on a fresh investigation into the connection of wealth and power in China, this time focusing on Wang Jianlin, a real-estate developer and the country's richest citizen. In September, Bloomberg News Managing Editor Jonathan Kaufman told the reporters that the story was "terrific" and added "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.”
But the next month, progress on the story suddenly came to a halt. The reporters learned from an editor that the story would indefinitely be "put on the back burner" for an indefinite amount of time. In a report by Edward Wong of The New York Times, Winkler told the reporters that publishing the report would jeopardize Bloomberg's access to China, and compared their situation to Nazi-era Germany, where journalists engaged in self-censorship in order to avoid expulsion from the country.
Winkler, speaking to The New York Times, denied the story and said that the investigation was still ongoing; the delay, he said, reflected a belief that the story was as yet unfit for publication, a claim that seems to belie the editorial enthusiasm for the article. But further reporting by the Times' Wong revealed the extent to which Bloomberg ensures that its editorial and business sides do not interfere with each other in China; in every Bloomberg story on China that might offend Beijing, editors insert a code that ensures that the story does not appear on mainland-China Bloomberg terminals.
Meanwhile, though the Times' article did not cite him as a source of information of the spiked story, Bloomberg placed Forsythe on unpaid leave of absence last Tuesday. Monday night, on Twitter, he thanked his followers for support.
Thanks everyone for the incredible outpouring of sympathy and support. It has really helped me and my family get through this.— Mike Forsythe 傅才德 (@PekingMike) November 18, 2013
And yesterday, he announced that his tenure with Bloomberg, which began in 2000, had come to an end.
I can confirm that I have left Bloomberg News. That's all I'm going to say for now.— Mike Forsythe 傅才德 (@PekingMike) November 19, 2013
The story, in many ways, is just beginning, and there are many unanswered questions. Will Bloomberg ultimately decide to publish a version of the story? If so, how will Beijing react? But these details obscure the larger point: Given The New York Times' reporting, it would appear that the Chinese government has successfully intimidated a major American news organization into killing a story that the government deemed offensive. And not just any story, either: a major investigative report on a subject central to any understanding of contemporary China—a subject on which a similar report last year won the Times a Pulitzer Prize.
Meanwhile, George Orwell's famous quote on the purpose of journalism—that it consists of printing what someone else does not want printed—is becoming no less vital in China, where the domestic media lack the wherewithal to do the investigations themselves.