Billionaire Media Moguls Shouldn't Run For President

Their power is twisting democracy.
Michael Bloomberg has launched a 2020 presidential bid.
Michael Bloomberg has launched a 2020 presidential bid.

Bloomberg LP, one of the biggest, most well-resourced news organizations in the world won’t deeply investigate any of the Democratic candidates for president.

On Sunday, after the company’s billionaire founder Michael Bloomberg announced his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, the editor-in-chief of Bloomberg’s editorial and research division, John Micklethwait, sent a memo to staffers outlining how the newsroom would handle the delicate issue of covering its owner: While they’d continue to track campaign news, Bloomberg reporters wouldn’t “investigate” Bloomberg, following a long-standing policy of not covering the man whose name is on the door. In the interest of fairness, they would back off the other candidates, as well, he writes. Bloomberg news has a similar policy in that it doesn’t cover itself or other competing newsrooms.

That’s a big problem. It’s a blow to journalism and democracy, and a perfect illustration of why the country would be better off if billionaires ― particularly the mogul-type who own media enterprises ― stayed out of politics.

The 77-year-old Bloomberg’s entry into the race means there are now three wealthy businessmen in contention for the Democratic presidential nomination ― Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang round out the trio. It’s the ideal moment for an outlet like Bloomberg news, with its deep understanding of business and finance, to start digging. The newsroom of roughly 2,700 journalists has already done outstanding work investigating the Trump family (and says it will continue to do so) and seems uniquely placed to increase the public’s understanding of the finances of the millionaire and billionaire wanna-be presidents.

Bloomberg’s political reporters are less than thrilled.

To be sure, Bloomberg news could’ve handled this differently. There were two other options, said Bill Grueskin, a professor at the Columbia Journalism School who was an executive editor at Bloomberg news for two and half years from 2014 to 2016.

“Do we really need another rich guy hiding his finances to be president?”

The outlet arguably could stop covering politics altogether, Grueskin wrote HuffPost in an email. This wouldn’t disrupt Bloomberg’s core business of selling financial data terminals to businesses. And though its customers value the news that also comes over the terminal, their primary interest is in the business and finance news. So that’s maybe “tenable,” he said.

But Grueskin’s preferred option is: “Let your reporters do their jobs, even if that means covering their boss, and their boss’s opponents,” he wrote in an email to HuffPost.

Media critic Margaret Sullivan makes a similar argument in the Washington Post, pointing out that Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffet ― two men richer than Bloomberg ― allow their news organizations to stay independent. John Henry, the rich owner of the Boston Globe, operates similarly, Grueskin said.

“Seems like things can work fine when billionaires don’t run for public office,” he said.

Bloomberg addressed his company’s policy of not covering him last year. In an interview with Radio Iowa, he said he didn’t believe any news outlet could be truly independent when reporting on its owner. “And quite honestly, I don’t want the reporters I’m paying to write a bad story about me! I don’t want them to be independent. So you’re going to have to do something,” he said laughing.

The former mayor also said that if he ran for president he would either sell his company or put it in a blind trust. That’s not happened yet ― and given his low standing in the polls, seems far-fetched.

Bloomberg is the eighth richest man in the world, with a net worth estimated at $53.4 billion, according to Forbes. But he isn’t even ranked on the Bloomberg Billionaire Index, run by his media company. Following its longstanding policy of not covering Bloomberg, the index simply leaves him off its comprehensive list.

“Just by joining the race, Bloomberg’s vast wealth is already altering the way the candidates will be covered at his media company ― and he’s raised the cost of running.”

Begs the question: Do we really need another rich guy hiding his finances to be president?

Bloomberg is richer than many sovereign nations. The former three-term New York City mayor has immense resources and power ― to the level at which he is going to distort any playing field he walks onto.

Unlike some other rich guys in the race, Bloomberg actually does have political experience, said Gautam Mukunda, a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy school and the author of “Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter.”

Still, just by joining the race, Bloomberg’s vast wealth is already altering the way the candidates will be covered at his media company ― and he’s raised the cost of running. Bloomberg spent a stunning $30 million on a week’s worth of TV ads ― more money, by far, than all the candidates have spent on ads all year, the New York Times reported last week.

“Just by the act of running, billionaires drive up the cost for everyone else,” said Mukunda. “That makes money more important for all the candidates ― even the ones running against the influence of money.”

Mukunda notes that rich men have always run for president. George Washington, he points out, was one of the wealthiest men in the country in his time. But the level of Bloomberg’s wealth is in a whole other stratosphere.

Inequality distorted the political system well before Bloomberg showed up in the race, said Heather Boushey, an economist who cofounded and runs the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

In her recent book, ”Unbound: How Economic Inequality Constricts Our Economy and What We Can Do About It,” Boushey points to a wide body of research that shows how rising inequality and the growing wealth of politicians are warping our democracy.

Politicians, on the national stage, are increasingly only taking action if it’s OK with rich people.

“A number of scholars show the preferences of the wealthy are dictating the legislative agenda,” Boushey said. “The things that the poor and middle class want only happen if the wealthy are also in favor.”

Bloomberg, for example, got in the race in part because he was not pleased with the policy proposals from progressive candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who want to raise taxes on the wealthy.

“The people we elect are supposed to represent our interests and high inequality is making that much more difficult,” she said.

Boushey is less concerned with any particular rich guy in the race, and more troubled by the broader implications of the rising influence of the wealthy in the political system.

“Is our democracy delivering for the majority? That to me is the biggest issue.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated Andrew Yang was a billionaire.

Popular in the Community