This week has seen a flurry of allegations, suspensions, and revelations about the workings of Bloomberg News in China. If it had to be summarized in one sentence, it would go something like this: the Chinese government’s influence prevented Bloomberg News from printing a story and, as if Bloomberg News were a Chinese state-run paper, the editor rolled over and let them do it. The story is not just censored in China, mind you, it has been barred from any publication at all.
The basic story goes as follows (or as seen in this morning’s lovely animation): Michael Forsythe, Bloomberg News reporter, wrote a story about financial ties between Wang Jianlin (China’s richest man) and the CCP, only to have the story nuked by editor-in-chief Matt Winkler who feared that the story could potentially get the news agency (and its super-profitable business services umbrella company) kicked out of the country. The New York Times then ran a story about the cancellation and Forsythe has been placed on suspension or, depending on who you read, he’s been canned altogether. It is strongly assumed, but not formally known, that the NYTimes story and Forsyth’s dismissal are intimately related.That’s the jist of it; it’s still a story-in-progress, and there will surely be many more details to come out over the next few weeks.
If the events conspired as the general narrative seems to suggest (and, as this is still developing, who the hell knows) then this is an international scandal.
Firstly, Mike Forsythe isn’t just a good reporter, he’s a great reporter. His piece on Xi Jinping’s family wealth and connections, published in Bloomberg News last year, came within inches of winning a Pulitzer. It was a perfect investigatory journalism piece, written by a group of reporters who knew mandarin, Chinese history, finance, and research inside-and-out. If Forsythe’s reported Wang Jianlin piece is one-tenth the story that his Xi Jinping article was, we are all worse off for not having read it.
By “we,” I don’t mean “we the English-reading expat/China-watching population.” The Xi Jinping article from June 2012 has been translated into Chinese (sometimes in part, sometimes the entire piece) countless times. Information about China’s ruling elite isn’t just interesting to global China-followers, it can be profoundly important to actual residents of the country (I’ve heard there are quite a few of them) who can never get the same kind of quality investigatory reportage from their own censored, manipulated, government-monitored press.
That brings us, secondly, to the allegations against editor-in-chief Matt Winkler. According to the Financial Times:
[Winkler] told the reporters in a conference call on October 29 that Bloomberg could not risk jeopardizing its position in China by running the story. […]
In the October conference call, Mr Winkler compared the situation with Nazi-era Germany where some media undertook self censorship to remain in the country, the person said. A Bloomberg spokesman did not challenge the veracity of the comment about Nazi-era Germany when asked by the FT. […]
Mr Winkler said the Communist party had made very clear that printing stories about the financial assets of its leaders was off-limits, the person familiar with the story said. (My emphasis)
The premise of Winkler’s argument is that Bloomberg News should self-censor in order to stay in China, but the precise reason that Bloomberg News is so important to China is because it does not censor its stories (its fancy financial services, however, are another story). If Bloomberg News stays in China but refuses to publish stories that violate the Chinese leadership’s guidelines, it may as well be the People’s Daily. The type of stories that the Chinese government wants censored are exactly the stories that are the most important to write: the kind that seek truth from facts regarding China’s biggest power players.
It is one thing if China censors the Bloomberg News website (as it so loves to do) or censors the New York Times, or cracks-down on its internal press. That type of censorship isn’t exactly welcome, but it’s far from new. If the New York Times publishes a China exposé, it’s only a matter of starting-up one’s VPN (or being outside of China) to access the piece. The CCP may hold the keys in China, that is, but it can’t exactly break down the door of the Times and start shredding files.
In this case, however, the door was swung wide open and (if the allegations are true) Winkler lovingly laid himself down as the red carpet for the CCP to cross before they ransacked Bloomberg News. The censors of one nation have abruptly and repulsively become the censors of us all; regardless of geography or VPN-skills, we have all been deprived of knowing more about the Chinese government, explicitly because the Chinese government does not want us to.
If you want something for comparison, take can look at Reuters’ recent, and excellent, series about Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei’s massive landholdings and wealth. Khamenei would surely love to stop Reuters from publishing its stories, but I would wager that a great many people would agree to say “fuck him, Reuters isn’t his to censor”. The fact that China is a wealthier country shouldn’t change a thing: the fact that these unelected old men can restrict information in their own countries is bad enough, but if they start censoring global publications, that is something else entirely.
Winkler surely has reasons for his actions, and hopefully the next few days’ revelations will allow us to form a more accurate narrative of what’s happened. Hopefully there is more nuance and substance to the story; if not, we (the global, news-reading public) may have just lost something big, and lost it without a fight.
In the meantime, let these chilling quotes destroy your hope for the world to have a free, liberal, global press:
NYPost: Based on interviews with several unidentified Bloomberg journalists, the story claimed a year-long investigation into financial ties between Chinese political leaders and one of the country’s wealthiest individuals was being spiked.
Sinosphere:”Their rationale is that we’re operating under the laws of mainland China,” said one employee, who, like others at Bloomberg, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being fired.
The Financial Times, in reference to the spiked article: Mr Kaufman emailed the reporters to say the story was “terrific”. In the email, which was obtained by the FT, he wrote: “The story is terrific. I am in awe of the way you tracked down and deciphered the financial holdings and the players. It’s a real revelation. Looking forward to pushing it up the line.”
NYPost (redux):“Michael Forsythe in no longer with the company,” said a Bloomberg spokesman.
Finally, if you have an appetite for irony, please visit the Committee to Protect Journalists’ “International Press Freedom Awards,” hosted in New York City and presented by the CEO and President of Bloomberg, Daniel L. Doctoroff.
As a footnote, let’s briefly confront that reference to Nazi Germany. Not to side with the CCP here, but Nazis they ain’t. Furthermore, if Winkler actually believes that the CCP is somehow on-par with the Third Reich, with whom is he choosing to align his company?