Bloomberg News, the journalism division of former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s financial services company, has long been plagued by questions of editorial independence. Those concerns are resurfacing in light of new reporting by NPR which shows that financial interests swayed key decision-making within the newsroom.
A bombshell story published by NPR last week reveals that a decision in 2014 to kill a follow-up to an award-winning 2012 investigative story on the accumulation of wealth in China’s ruling class was due to fear of reprisal from the Chinese government. Bloomberg News then actively silenced those who had worked on the investigation.
“It is for sure going to, you know, invite the Communist Party to, you know, completely shut us down and kick us out of the country,” said Matthew Winkler, Bloomberg’s editor-in-chief, during a conference call with reporters in China. “So, I just don’t see that as a story that is justified.”
At one point in the call, an audio recording of which was obtained by NPR, Winkler emphasized the importance of not jeopardizing the company’s financial endeavors in China, which at the time, according to three former Bloomberg executives, was seen as a growing market and a strategic priority.
“There’s a way to use the information you have in such a way that enables us to report, but not kill ourselves in the process and wipe out everything we’ve tried to build there,” Winkler told the reporters.
After learning of the initial Bloomberg investigation in 2012, the Chinese government began to retaliate by searching bureaus, denying journalists’ visas, and ordering state-owned companies to stop using Bloomberg Terminals, the signature product offered by parent company Bloomberg LP. With mounting pressure from the Chinese government, Bloomberg began censoring its content rather than deal with the repercussions.
The abrupt shelving of the story came as a surprise to those involved, including journalist Mike Forsythe, who was forced to move his family to Hong Kong after receiving death threats relayed through a supposed representative of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s family. According to NPR, the follow-up investigation was receiving positive feedback from editors in New York until it was suddenly no longer being discussed.
Leta Hong Fincher, Forsythe’s wife and a fellow journalist, was also a target that Bloomberg sought to silence. While the company was successful in getting Forsythe out of the picture by firing him for allegedly leaking what happened to other outlets, they did not have the same leverage on Fincher.
Fincher says she was pressured by Bloomberg lawyers to sign a nondisclosure agreement by threatening her family with lawsuits that would cost them well over $100,000 if she did not sign. She resisted.
“They assumed that because I was the wife of their employee, I was the wife,” Fincher said. “I was just an appendage of their employee. I was not a human being.”
Upon his firing, like the other reporters working on the story who subsequently left Bloomberg, Forsythe signed a nondisclosure agreement that prevented him from publicly discussing his time at the company.
Fincher was never employed by Bloomberg, but the company’s lawyers were concerned about what she may have seen or heard through her husband. Their legal team still insists that Forsythe stole intellectual property and gave it to his wife, and denies that the couple was pressured to sign nondisclosure agreements.
While it is unknown to what degree these practices may exist at other media companies, they are generally seen as suspicious and in violation of journalistic ethics. Many reporters at other outlets were quick to express their shock and dismay with the revelations.
Deeply disturbing practices revealed here. https://t.co/MJBgMyznDu
— Jonathan Swan (@jonathanvswan) April 14, 2020
When Bloomberg’s financial interests collide with the truth, truth loses. https://t.co/ZcYrqP7k44
— Elizabeth Chang (@ElizabethGChang) April 19, 2020
This NPR investigation shreds years of (already dubious) attempts by Bloomberg News to deny that it killed a major investigation into China’s ruling class in order to protect its corporate interests in the countryhttps://t.co/IpOxdDElU9
— Alex Burns (@alexburnsNYT) April 14, 2020
Alex Burns, a national political correspondent at The New York Times, has done his own reporting on Mike Bloomberg. When the then-candidate was asked about US support for Hong Kong, Burns said the mayor was less than enthusiastic.
“Had Mike Bloomberg become the Democratic nominee, his overseas financial entanglements would have been a major general-election vulnerability — none more so than his presence in China, and the generally sympathetic line he has taken toward the CCP,” Burns said. “NPR story is a taste of that.”
NPR contacted the counsel for a different media company, a media executive, and a workplace attorney regarding the allegations that Bloomberg’s legal team pushed Fincher to sign a nondisclosure agreement. All of the sources independently said that they had not heard of a situation where the spouse of an employee was being asked to sign such an agreement.
Ultimately the story was published, but with the New York Times instead, where Forsythe later became a reporter. Forsythe was forced to rereport much of what he had uncovered while working at Bloomberg, drawing out the timeline from when the team at Bloomberg initially uncovered the story to its eventual publication.