The Bloomberg fallout: Where does journalism in China go from here?
Last week, Bloomberg Inc. Chairman Peter Grauer said in Hong Kong that the news and financial information services company, founded in 1981 by Michael Bloomberg, “had” to be in China and “should have rethought” some of its recent stories there.
On Monday, Ben Richardson, news editor at large for Asia and a 13-year veteran at Bloomberg News, resigned. Bloomberg, which had led the way in authoritative investigative reports on the government/business nexus in China, has become instead the poster child for the ills of the business/pressure nexus in journalism.
But does this mean that it is impossible to do good journalism in China? Of course not.
In some ways, this is a golden age for foreign reporting in the People’s Republic. Key wire services, newspapers and magazines have more and better trained reporters in China than ever before. Travel is freer, sources are more available and the amount of sheer official data, information and verbiage that is turned out is unrivaled—and almost impossible to keep up with. The trick is turning all this raw input into journalism of the highest order.
Bloomberg and The New York Times showed that weaving publicly available information with source material can yield treasures, but also bring China’s wrath and financial penalties. That’s a big risk to take, but it is one worth taking and also possible to take, if you have courage and prepare the ground properly.
First, you have to be clear about what you are and what you stand for, and not let any opportunity go by without repeating it. Just as China repeats its “principled stands” on Taiwan, Tibet, human rights, etc., in word-perfect order year after year, so too I, when I worked for Reuters, would use that company’s Trust Principles and fundamental journalistic values as the introduction to any official meeting. If your principles are strong and steadfast, they become something that has to be dealt with. If your principles can be rethought and changed, they become simply a negotiating point.
Second, you must make sure you have plenty of opportunities to talk about your principles. Government relations is not something that is just for crisis times, it must be a key job for bureau chiefs, editors and senior company officials year in and year out. Your reporting focuses should never be a surprise. Your standards should be the stuff of regular conversations.
Third, you have to be good. We know Bloomberg’s first stories were good—we read them. The story that has caused the current uproar has not been published so quite honestly none of us can really judge. We have excellent reporters and editors saying it was ready to go, we have the editor-in-chief, himself an excellent journalist, saying it wasn’t. Is this the reporter vs. editor tension that every organisation has—and which is actually what you need for quality—or is it something nefarious? We really can’t and shouldn’t say. What we can say is that if you want to do tough reporting on China, your stories had better be bullet proof, because the bullets will come.
Fourth, you have to be ready for all your preparatory work to be for naught and for China to sanction you. China has expelled reporters in the past, it can and has caused monumental and even insurmountable bureaucratic headaches for others, it has caused economic harm by restricting sales and blocking websites. But China, with its 5,000 years of history, is excellent at playing the long game, and if you want to be in China that is the game you must play. Ignore quarterly results. Ignore annual profit. Concentrate on the long term effects on your reputation and standing, and on the eventual need for China to be more open.
Fifth, you need to get your stakeholders involved. You should be writing the tough stories because your readers need them. The banks and brokerages who subscribe to Bloomberg should be demanding more of the investigative reports because they help them make decisions. The exchanges who list Chinese IPOs should be demanding more of the reports because they bring needed transparency to the market. And if your readers aren’t demanding the stories, you’re either writing them wrong or you’re not working with your readers closely enough.
Sixth, you must be fair and acknowledge that China’s reflexive paranoia that foreign reporting on China is out to “get” the People’s Republic can sometimes be stimulated by the stories themselves. If you go after the intricate relationship between business and government in China without going after the intricate relationship between business and government in the United States with the same fervor, you are doing no one any favours. If you write China stories loaded with snark and without empathy for China’s point of view, you merely play into perpetuating an unhealthy antagonism instead of the healthy skepticism and drive for the truth that good journalism must be.
This article was originally published as part of a discussion on ChinaFile.com, an online magazine published by the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. David Schlesinger is the founder and Managing Director of Tripod Advisors, a media and China consulting service based in Hong Kong. He is the former global Editor-in-Chief of Reuters and the former Chairman of Thomson Reuters China.