Recent resignations at Bloomberg News and leaks about the company's reporting in China have raised questions about what concessions news organizations choose — or are forced to make — to sustain expensive foreign reporting. The New York Times Edward Wong talks to Bob about why financial reporting has become the biggest threat in the eyes of China's ruling party, and why Western media might have less reason to be worried than they think.
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BOB GARFIELD: Many an investigative story sets off explosive reactions, and such was the case with a Bloomberg news inquiry into the personal wealth accumulated by China's ruling elites. The past two weeks have seen accusations, denials and a flurry of sudden personnel moves that had all the appearance of heads rolling. Except the drama wasn't taking place within the Chinese government or Communist Party. It's happening at Bloomberg, where the article originated and where it remains today, unseen by the outside world. Yes, the piece by Michael Forsythe and Shai Oster was never published, leading to a journalistic scandal and the suggestion that Bloomberg Editor-in-Chief Matthew Winkler was pulling punches to protect the company's business interests in China. The company has said such a characterization is absurd, and Winkler insists the stories remain active.
But leaks of internal Bloomberg deliberations suggest otherwise. And the whole affair suggests the fears of a Chinese crackdown on journalism no longer center on Tibet or Falun Gong.
Edward Wong from the New York Times says the new redline is scrutiny of private wealth.
EDWARD WONG: And the reason why this became such a big issue last year was because a couple of news organizations decided to devote business reporters, reporters who are used to combing through financial documents, to really ferret out actual hard numbers and asset locations of these families. And it highlights the increasing gap between ordinary people here in China and the very elite who are running China. This isn’t an image of China that the Party wants the world to see.
BOB GARFIELD: Before we get to the Bloomberg particulars, just please give me a sense of what you and your colleagues face in the ordinary course of doing business, trying to cover China.
EDWARD WONG: We’re seeing them using very harsh tactics to try and keep us under control. Last year, a couple of news organizations, including Bloomberg and the New York Times, did investigative financial stories that looked at the assets of various Chinese leaders. And the measures that the government’s taken in retaliation are immense. They’ve blocked their websites here in China. They’re holding up visas for new journalists who are trying to try come in.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, what complicates this story is that Bloomberg has one set of interests, journalistic, and a second set of interests in China, commercial, because the goose that lays the Bloomberg golden egg is Wall Street data, and there's some question as to whether infuriating the Chinese government with its news reporting will cost them business in the data sector. Is that a fair concern?
EDWARD WONG: I don't think it’s even a question. It’s a fact. When they published their first story last year on the family wealth of Xi Jinping, who’s now the Party chief here, officials ordered state-owned enterprises to drop terminal descriptions. They were coming up to another story this year, also about wealth and elite Party families.
In a conference call with New York on October 29th, they got a message from the editor-in-chief, Matthew Winkler, that if they ran this story then they would get kicked out of China. He was saying, oh, we have to stay in China to cover China. And he compared the situation to foreign journalists working under Nazi Germany, when they would have to engage in some forms of self-censorship to maintain access. The other people we’ve spoken to at Bloomberg in New York say that no one on the business side talked to the editorial side before this story ran, but we do know that the business side and China has come under great pressure.
BOB GARFIELD: Winkler says the story wasn’t spiked, but the leaks that are coming out of Bloomberg in the ensuing two weeks tell a very different story.
EDWARD WONG: That’s correct. The emails are some of the more interesting documentary evidence that’s come out during the story. I mean, they were first printed by Financial Times and they showed one editor saying, oh, the story’s terrific. The top editor working on the story said it’s almost there. And also, our sources say that the story had been vetted by a lawyer in early October, which is usually something that any news organization has done in the very final stages. All the signals to everyone was that the story was at the end stage and it would be ready to run very soon. Then suddenly, there’s a moment of silence when no one hears from the editors in mid-October and in late-October to get a series of conference calls telling them the story was being held, was being put on the back burner or was being killed, depending on whose version of the story you hear.
BOB GARFIELD: What do you think happened to that story?
EDWARD WONG: I would say that from talks with our sources, it seems that the story was, at the very least, it was put on the back burner. Like that term was used. But the message that people took out of those conference calls was that for now the story was dead and would not be moving forward.
BOB GARFIELD: If you take the most sinister view of what's taken place, it sure looks like Bloomberg has behaved in, you know, a craven gun-shy pusillanimous way to protect its business interests. That's how it looks. But I'm curious, does a company like Bloomberg or the New York Times or Reuters or anybody else who has to do business in China have any leverage over the Chinese government? Is there nothing that Western journalists have to offer that China dare not lose?
EDWARD WONG: Well, I think that China does want coverage of the country, of the growing economy, of the people here, of its leaders. And that’s part of its need for soft power in the world and for the world to understand it. So I don't think it wants the major news bureaus to pull up their stakes and leave. That’s not what they try and get at. And so, because of that, I do believe these organizations have some leverage over China. Ones like Bloomberg or Thomson Reuters have another avenue of leverage, in that Chinese state banks need their terminals to do business. Altogether, these organizations do have ways of pushing back against bullying from the Chinese government.
BOB GARFIELD: Edward, thank you very much.
EDWARD WONG: Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Edward Wong covers China from Beijing for the New York Times.