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Gauging Bloomberg's China 'Rethink'

On 24 March, a 13-year veteran of Bloomberg News, Ben Richardson, an editor at large for Asia news, resigned in protest. A few days earlier, company Chairman Peter Grauer had said that the news and financial information services company founded in 1981 by Michael Bloomberg “had” to be in China and “should have rethought” some of its recent stories there. Grauer avoided specifics, but it seemed clear that he was referring to a series of investigative reports on wealth in China produced by Bloomberg journalists over the last year. In that same period, Bloomberg’s China reports won awards, its website was blocked in China, and sales there of its core product - the Bloomberg terminal - declined. Moreover, tensions grew between editorial staff and management. Richardson told media blogger Jim Romenesko that “a small group of incompetent and self-serving managers” at Bloomberg had “screwed things up for everyone else,” confirming earlier reports that Bloomberg had compromised its journalistic principles for fear of losing business in China.  

David Schlesinger, founder of Tripod Advisors and former chairman of Thompson Reuters China and former editor-in-chief of Reuters:

Bloomberg’s chairman “rethinks”, a journalist departs with a bang, and Bloomberg, which had led the way in authoritative investigative reports on the government-business nexus in China, becomes instead the poster child for the ills of the business-pressure nexus in journalism. 

Does this mean that it is impossible to do good journalism in China? Of course not.

In some ways, this is a golden age for foreign reporting in the People’s Republic. Key wire services, newspapers, and magazines have more and better trained reporters in China than ever before, travel is freer, sources are more available and the amount of sheer official data, information, and verbiage that is turned out is unrivalled - and almost impossible to keep up with. The trick is turning all this raw input into journalism of the highest order.

Bloomberg and The New York Times showed that weaving publicly available information with source material can yield treasures, but also bring China’s wrath (or at least financial penalties). That's a big risk to take, but it is one worth taking and also possible to take, if you have courage and prepare the ground properly.

First, you have to be clear about what you are and what you stand for, and not let any opportunity go by without repeating it. Just as China repeats its “principled stands” on Taiwan, Tibet, human rights, etc., in word-perfect order year after year, so too I, when I worked for Reuters, would use that company’s Trust Principles and fundamental journalistic values as the introduction to any official meeting. If your principles are strong and steadfast, they become something that has to be dealt with. If your principles can be rethought and changed, they become simply a negotiating point.

In some ways, this is a golden age for foreign reporting in the People’s Republic

Second, you must make sure you have plenty of opportunities to talk about your principles. Government relations is not something that is just for crises - it must be a key job for bureau chiefs, editors, and senior company officials year in and year out. Your reporting focuses should never be a surprise. Your standards should be the stuff of regular conversations.

Third, you have to be good. We know Bloomberg’s first stories were good. The story that has caused the current uproar has not been published so quite honestly none of us can really judge. We have excellent reporters and editors saying it was ready to go, we have the editor-in-chief, himself an excellent journalist, saying it wasn’t. Is this the reporter vs. editor tension that every organization has - and which is actually what you need for quality - or is it something nefarious? We really can’t and shouldn’t say. What we can say is that if you want to do tough reporting on China, your stories had better be bulletproof. Because the bullets will come.

Fourth, you have to be ready for all your preparatory work to be for naught and for China to sanction you. China has expelled reporters in the past, it can and has caused monumental and even insurmountable bureaucratic headaches for others, and it has caused economic harm by restricting sales and blocking websites. But China, with its 5,000 years of history, is excellent at playing the long game, and if you want to be in China that is the game you must play. Ignore quarterly results. Ignore annual profits. Concentrate on the long-term effects on your reputation and standing, and on the eventual need for China to be more open. 

Fifth, you need to get your stakeholders involved. You should be writing the tough stories because your readers need them. The banks and brokerages who subscribe to Bloomberg should be demanding more of the investigative reports because they help them make investment decisions. The exchanges who list Chinese IPOs should be demanding more of the reports because they bring needed transparency to the market. And if your readers aren’t demanding the stories, you’re either writing them wrong or you’re not working with your readers closely enough.

Sixth, you must be fair and acknowledge that China’s reflexive paranoia that foreign reporting on China is out to “get” it can sometimes be stimulated by the stories themselves. If you go after the intricate relationship between business and government in China without going after the intricate relationship between business and government in the United States with the same fervor, you are doing no one any favors. If you write China stories loaded with snark and without empathy for China’s point of view, you merely play into perpetuating an unhealthy antagonism instead of the healthy skepticism and drive for the truth that good journalism must be.

Chen Weihua, chief Washington correspondent, China Daily and deputy editor, China Daily USA

I think it’s all a part of a longstanding struggle in newsrooms in China, the United States, and elsewhere about whether the financial bottom line should outweigh journalistic values.

As a journalist, I am all for good journalism. But, unfortunately, newsmen are often not the ones calling the shots these days. Yes, it’s a compromise of journalistic values that no journalist wishes to accept or see. Ultimately, that’s not why we’re in journalism. 

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, a First Amendment lawyer by profession, suggested in 2010 that an endowment for news organizations be established - like those that support universities - so that the freedom of the press might be better protected. 

I can’t remember how many U.S. newspapers have closed over the years. I think that approach represents a brilliant idea to rid journalists of unnecessary interference from the business side.

I don’t think there is an ideal place for journalists anywhere. 

And the challenge in China is obvious.

A lot of people are fighting - some may become heroes or martyrs overnight, but others fight for the long haul.

Dorinda Elliott, editor at large, ChinaFile:

If Bloomberg is really going to avoid politically sensitive stories in China going forward, as press reports are suggesting, it will be doing China a great disservice. The Chinese government has got to realize that a more professional, more open press will lead to more stability, not less. 

Surely Chinese President Xi Jinping knows that the media can help check corruption precisely at a time when he has made it clear he wants to put an end to that scourge, which is arguably the greatest threat to China’s stability. Honest, investigative reports can also provide an escape valve - a channel for airing of the frustrations that have been building over the cruel, dirty dealings of officials, sharpening income disparities, and fears about environmental disaster.

I was one of the jurors who chose Bloomberg’s investigative stories on the wealth of Chinese leaders as the winner of the Asia Society’s Oz Elliott Prize for Journalism last year. 

How sad, if the reports are true, to think that Bloomberg is now throwing journalistic integrity out the window for the sake of profits. Where will it draw the line? What if there is a negative China business development that might affect the markets; will Bloomberg pull its reporters off that one, too? And for that matter, will Bloomberg stop doing tough reporting on companies that buy its terminals? Where does it stop? 

A kowtowing Bloomberg would merely play into the hands of less enlightened propaganda tsars who don’t understand that more discussion leads to more stability. China’s more farsighted leaders know that a modernizing China inevitably will become more open. I should think Bloomberg would want to be on the right side of history.

David Bandurski, researcher at University of Hong Kong China Media Project: 

I see two crucial aspects to the question of where journalism in China (and on China) goes from here. First, there is the health and long-term development of Chinese news media. Second, there is foreign news coverage of China. In the past, these were two mostly distinct spheres, and the Chinese Communist Party leadership felt it could treat them as such. The party’s priority was ensuring social and political stability at home by controlling, or “guiding,” domestic public opinion - which meant keeping a choke-hold on Chinese news media. Foreign news coverage was mostly a nettlesome question of China’s image overseas, and after 2007 of its “soft power.” 

In fact, most of the truly probing coverage was being done against immense odds by the Chinese media. Enabled by the explosive growth of social media in China, including platforms like Sina Weibo, The New York Times and Bloomberg stories shattered the wall between these two spheres. 

I remember watching David Barboza’s story on the family wealth of then-Premier Wen Jiabao spreading like wildfire on Sina Weibo. It became a domestic news story, shedding unwelcome light on the business associations of one of the country’s most loved and respected political leaders.

Now we’ve seen quite clearly China’s response to this shift. The authorities are trying to stop future coverage of this kind by poisoning the roots - denying visas to veteran reporters like Chris Buckley, and forcing Bloomberg to make a disgusting choice between strong journalism and a core business for which China is a major market. Another issue here is a revolution in available data and information for journalists about China, and a growing number of China lifers (as opposed to parachute journalists) who are able to parse that information and reveal its significance. I think we’ll continue to see great reporting on China, but the costs of that reporting will have to be shared in new and innovative ways.

Ouyang Bin, associate editor at ChinaFile:

Facing similar conflicts between editorial values and business interests, the two leading American media companies made completely different choices. In public discussions, Bloomberg has become a villain, smearing the cherished values of the free press and independent journalism, while The New York Times is held up as a shining light of objectivity. Why?

It is difficult for me to think of Bloomberg as “media” in the same way I think of the Times. Unlike a traditional newspaper, Bloomberg also provides financial services through its terminals. It is a more comprehensive company. The news is not its most profitable component. When subscribers who pay a huge amount of money for Bloomberg terminals wake up and suddenly can’t find any information about the Chinese market, we may better understand Bloomberg Chairman Peter Grauer’s saying “we have to be there” and “we should have rethought.”

Free press and independent journalism are something no media dares to say “no” to. But the cost of upholding these values is different for each player in every instance. The values may mean everything to some media but, to others, aren't worth sacrificing everything else for. 

Publishing a “sensitive” article may mean losing a work visa for a foreign reporter, but it could mean imprisonment for a Chinese reporter. Being disobedient may cause one journalist to lose the magazine she built over 10-plus years. Others using “self-media” can get shut down one day only to start over again a few months later.

It’s pointless to discuss whether or not we should boo Bloomberg. Instead, we should consider the following two points: First, “media” has already become as broad a concept as “dog” - Chihuahua to mastiff. Neglecting the differences between breeds is too simplistic. Second, moral constraint or professional conscience sometimes is weak and unreliable. Something else is reshaping and will redefine the concept of media. Stronger business concerns can force media to kowtow to power, but new technology may unintentionally reduce the cost of pursuing and upholding the values of journalistic independence.

Jeremy Goldkorn, founder, Danwei: 

Since the Qing Dynasty, foreign journalists in China have been a mix of carpetbaggers, phoneys, amateurs, businessmen, self-promoters, fantasists, and cowards as well a few people and organizations who make a genuine effort to tell stories that matter.

Bloomberg and every other foreign media company with a presence in China will, by their actions in the coming years, make clear which type of journalistic enterprise they are.

David Schlesinger is a former editor-in-chief of Reuters and chairman of Thomson Reuters China. He is also a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of The Baron. This article was first published in Foreign Policy magazine. ■