Publisher's Note — November 14, 2013, 5:39 pm

Some Balance on Press Snoops, Please

Why more attention should have been paid to terminal tapping at Bloomberg News

This column originally ran in the Providence Journal on November 14, 2013.

For those of us who have spent the greater part of our lives writing for newspapers and magazines, these are trying times. Big dailies are being sold at rock-bottom prices, world-renowned periodicals are permanently closing their doors, and reputable journalists are left to beg, borrow, and blog for increasingly tiny sums of money.

Yet despite all the bad news, there are still reputations and money to be made in our beleaguered trade. Jeff Bezos’s purchase of the Washington Post is the most prominent example of a wealthy businessman seeking influence and acceptance by associating himself with an honored name, while Warren Buffett’s investment in newspapers in distressed locales like Buffalo shows there’s value in run-down media for smart people who just want to make a profit.

Meanwhile, a few media barons survive for whom journalism is a mixed enterprise — a cross between a moneymaking family business and an avocation. Nowadays, the three most powerful of them are Rupert Murdoch, S. I. Newhouse, and the soon-to-be-ex-mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg. Nobody would mistake these men for William Randolph Hearst — they don’t have the same kind of charisma and neurotic ambition — but they do share the trait of globe-straddling hubris.

Murdoch has been criticized, and rightly, for his low ethical standards and vile sensationalism. That being said, I think he’s too easy a target; I’m not all that bothered by the phone hacking that has landed two former subordinates of the Dirty Digger (as he was dubbed by Private Eye) in London’s criminal court. As a former police reporter, I sympathize with the journalists who find themselves pressured to get the dirt and details that everyone wants to read but no one respectable admits to enjoying. On the grand scale of perfidious misdeeds by the press, eavesdropping on a crime victim’s cell phone seems fairly tame compared with, say, Judith Miller and the New York Times helping to start a catastrophic, ongoing war in Iraq.

Newhouse is another matter. Heir to a newspaper fortune built by his father, this press lord has chosen to funnel profits from his chain of dailies into the purchase of high-quality magazines such as The New Yorker and Vogue. I don’t begrudge Newhouse his glossy empire, superficial though it is, because it’s a good deal more constructive an activity than spending billions on yachts, mansions, or overrated modern art.

But what about the supposedly benign billionaire Bloomberg? “Mayor Mike,” as he’s solicitously referred to by some, has mostly gotten a pass from media critics, since besides making money his interests seem to lie more in politics and public service than in journalism. A “nice” Republican who used to be a Democrat, Bloomberg appears almost shy next to Murdoch. His Bloomberg News service seems for the most part to be reliable, though its recent decision not to publish two stories that would have angered the Chinese government makes me doubt the company’s honesty and courage.

What I don’t doubt is that Bloomberg’s original financial-data business — the Bloomberg terminal — places him in a serious, permanent conflict of interest with his news-gathering operations, which include television, radio and magazines.

When the scandal erupted last May about Bloomberg reporters tapping into Bloomberg terminals leased by Wall Street firms to track their usage — in order to get a jump on the competition at the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal and elsewhere — my first thought was about Murdoch and his domestic servants, Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks.

How was terminal tapping at upscale Bloomberg News any less unethical than phone hacking at downscale News of the World? Why was Bloomberg editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler’s assurance that such dodgy snooping by his journalists would never be repeated allowed to pass, while Murdoch’s former employees stand trial and the British press potentially faces unprecedented regulation in the form of government licensing?

In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, can we really believe that none of Bloomberg’s 2,400 editorial employees will have further access to anything on the Bloomberg “professional service” terminals?

Moreover, what guarantee is there that Bloomberg journalists — if they have access to the same information at the same time as the Bloomberg terminal clients — aren’t shading their stories about companies and stock offers to benefit themselves?

A reporter or editor discerns what he believes is nervousness at Goldman Sachs about a particular stock that’s starting to tank, so he tips off a friend to sell the stock short and then writes a negative story about the company. It’s not out of the question that this could also occur by checking usage patterns on Bloomberg terminals at the Federal Reserve — concerning bank-lending rates, for example.

With nothing much to do after leaving City Hall on January 1, Bloomberg may be expected to expand his media empire — he is said to be interested in buying the very trustworthy, very independent Financial Times, archrival of Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal. Maybe the British Parliament should examine the ethics of Bloomberg L.P. before such a thing happens, and before it punishes a bunch of newspaper hacks who just wanted a good story.

Share
Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

Publisher's Note April 16, 2015, 3:51 pm

The Grind and the Gun

“Attributing white-on-black violence entirely to racism misses the larger problems that poorer people face in this country. They suffer a thousand cuts that never get talked about, except when the victims bleed to death.”

Publisher's Note March 19, 2015, 4:05 pm

The Mayor and the Machine

“Emanuel’s position in the local party is insecure because he was not raised in the machine, or, for that matter, in a working-class city neighborhood.”

Publisher's Note February 26, 2015, 3:00 pm

French Fiction Reveals Faux Democracy

“Houellebecq, who is neither radical nor left-wing, understands perfectly France’s political elites and its duped and disempowered electorate.”

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

  • Mupert Rurdock

    One could construe your position as, “Trampling over insignificant persons can be seen in a sympathetic light and without much consequence. But dare to inconvenience those people who matter and who knows what kind of trouble could ensue!”

    Honestly, maybe a little more discord and paranoia among the comfortable classes would keep them humble and uncomfortable with some of the designs being built on the backs of smaller people. Think of the good Mr. Bloomberg’s new phase as aggressive media baron a necessary evil, acting to put off balance other aggressors in the profession.

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2015

Displaced in the D.R.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quietest Place in the Universe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Black Hat, White Hat

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Beyond the Broken Window

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In Search of a Stolen Fiddle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Last month, the PEN America Center announced its intention to honor Charlie Hebdo with its Freedom of Expression Courage Award at a gala on May 5. Six members of the organization have withdrawn from the gala in protest. In "The Joke," Justin E. H. Smith addressed the Anglo-American left's response to the killings.
Photo of a Charlie Hebdo editorial meeting in 2006 by Jean-Francois/DEROUBAIX
Article
In Search of a Stolen Fiddle·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“To lose an instrument is to lose an essential piece of one’s identity. It brings its own solitary form of grief.”
Violin © Serge Picard/Agence VU
Post
Driving the San Joaquin Valley·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Don sucked the last of his drink through his straw and licked his lips. 'The coast, to me, is more interesting than the valley.'”
Photograph by the author
Article
Othello’s Son·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Fred Morton, who died this week in Vienna, at the age of 90, was a longtime contributor to Harper's Magazine and a good friend. "Othello's Son," which was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2013, appeared in our September 2013 issue.
Photograph © Alex Gotfryd/CORBIS
Article
Beyond the Broken Window·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“By the time Bratton left the department, in 2009, Los Angeles had quietly become the most spied-on city in America.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery

Weeks after the peso collapsed that former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari joined the board of Dow Jones:

4

A Disney behavioral ecologist announced that elephants’ long-range low-frequency vocal rumblings draw elephant friends together and drive elephant enemies apart.

A robot known as Random Darknet Shopper that was confiscated by Swiss police for purchasing ten ecstasy pills online was cleared of charges.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today