A bit of red meat for the liberal-media-conspiracy crew: Bloomberg News Editor in Chief Matthew Winkler contributed a total of $750 to the Democratic National Committee and the Gore campaign in the 2000 election cycle. At the same time, Winkler and his underlings were producing hundreds of stories on the historic Bush vs. Gore race.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer in late July buttonholed a Bloomberg reporter with pointed questions about the campaign contributions. (Fleischer was on vacation and unavailable to comment for this story.)
Fleischer, however, has not addressed his concerns to the Bloomberg editor’s suite, according to Winkler. “The White House has told a lot of people how much they enjoy our White House team,” says Winkler. “They think they’re fair and so on.”
Bloomberg is a major news organization: 1,200 editors and reporters, in 87 bureaus, kick out 4,000 stories each day on business and politics. Its work runs in prestigious papers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Le Monde. But Winkler, who founded the operation in 1990, remains the driving force behind it.
“We’re one of the largest news organizations in the world,” he boasts.
Perhaps not the most professional, however. Bloomberg staffers report considerable discomfort working for a boss whose political loyalties are strong enough to carry a dollar figure. “If you’re aware of the evidence of the bias, it naturally raises a suspicion about input from him on each and every story involving a
political figure,” says a staffer
at the Bloomberg Washington bureau who requested anonymity.
One Bloomberg ex says the problem is more than theoretical. “My personal feeling was that some stories I was involved in were edited at the top with an anti-Bush slant,” says former White House senior correspondent David Morris.
The political contributions—Winkler also gave $750 to Democratic causes and candidates in both the 1996 and 1998 election cycles—reflect the editor’s willingness to let civic compulsions overwhelm journalistic strictures. In July 2001, Winkler sat at the witness table of a House subcommittee to spout off on the ethical conflicts of stock analysts. Journalists generally confine themselves to the press table at congressional hearings.
Even the editor’s credentials look shaky. A profile of Winkler on the Bloomberg financial services system lists an MBA from Harvard University. Winkler never received such a degree and blames the mistake on the company’s computer technicians. “There’s something screwy with the Bloomberg data,” says Winkler, who notes that the profile also erroneously mentions a degree from Rutgers University. Other bios, he notes, contain no references to Harvard or Rutgers.
He likewise disavows the furor around the campaign contributions, which led staffers to confront the boss. Last summer, Morris even sent Winkler a letter questioning the gifts and their implications for the organization’s credibility. (Morris refused to discuss the letter.)
The donations, Winkler explained, came from a joint account that Winkler keeps with his wife, Lisa Winkler. In an interview this week, Winkler referred to himself and his wife as an “economic entity” and insisted that the contributions were “her decision.”
Why, then, do federal elections records list “Matt Winkler” as the donor and Bloomberg as the employer?
“Everything that we do financially is together,” responds Winkler. “There is no separate bank account.”
Even so, Winkler has pledged that his hearthside “economic entity” will stop making contributions to political candidates and causes. “No political contributions—we won’t do them,” says Winkler. “I said that I didn’t think that I should be a hindrance in any way or a distraction.” Records for the 2002 election cycle thus far reflect no contributions from Winkler.
As for the accusations that bias has shaped Bloomberg’s coverage, Winkler responds that the wire service’s stories “speak for themselves.”
Ethics aside, Winkler is also having a rocky time in the newsroom. In recent months, several key staffers in Bloomberg’s Washington bureau have quit in frustration over the company’s management practices. In addition to Morris, other departures include politics editor Mark Willen, tax and financial services reporter Rob Wells, congressional reporter Bob Gravely, telecommunications reporter Jonathan Cox, and health policy reporter Kim Dixon.
Although the former staffers declined to discuss the circumstances surrounding their departures, current staffers insist that most of them felt hemmed in by the Bloomberg bureaucracy. A thicket of at least five editors—both at the bureau and at headquarters in New York—must sign off on all their feature stories.
Bloomberg also has a policy prohibiting the use of anonymous sources—only Winkler himself can authorize unnamed attributions. Reporters claim that the system creates a bottleneck in the editor’s office.
To Winkler, the system ensures fairness, thoroughness, and good writing. To the writer, the system ensures endless rewrites and Hollywood-length production cycles. Before quitting in April, for example, Wells had been working for a year on a feature concerning the lobbying practices of Fannie Mae; the story was never published. Wells declined to discuss the piece.
And while Bloomberg agonizes over the perfect story, it gets scooped by rival news organizations. On July 9, for example, the Post printed a story on the flush political action committee of software maker Siebel Systems Inc. Post staff writer Jim VandeHei used the example of Siebel’s $2.1 million PAC to foreshadow the “next generation” of political fundraising.
Bloomberg reporter Glen Justice was on the Siebel piece more than two months before the Post version appeared, according to a non-Bloomberg source involved in the story. On the day that the Post story ran, the Bloomberg newsroom “was like a graveyard,” says a former staffer.
The Post’s VandeHei says that he spent two days reporting his Siebel story, and the editing process took “at most a day or a couple of days. The turnaround is pretty quick.”
Justice declined to answer questions on the Siebel story. “Bloomberg News is a 12-year-old organization, and it does have growing pains, and that’s what some of us are feeling,” he says.
Says Winkler: “I would love to be first with everything….For the most part, [the system] works out well. We have won a lot of journalism awards.” —Erik Wempl