The Washington Post’s slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness” is an easy one to make fun of.
It’s not just that it’s a trite celebration of their own importance, although that definitely helps. Instead, it’s that we suddenly decided that this was an important thing to emphasize after the 2016 election.
Darkness in democracy was apparently fine before this; as long as Barack Obama was our country’s figurehead or Hillary Clinton was about to succeed him, there was no sign that the forecast called for darkness.
Once the American people decided to go with Donald Trump, however, things took a turn. Which is funny, because his election was literally how representative democracy works.
But furthermore, the slogan is tautological. Of course democracy would die in darkness. If news organizations didn’t cover anything political, representative democracy would indeed die.
It’s important that our media cover our politicians, even if they cover them like The Washington Post — where, if an objective free press is the powerplant of democracy, the editors and writers have been driving their particular vehicle with the check engine light on, despite the plume of smoke coming out the back and that high-pitched squealing noise from under the hood that makes every dog within a 12-mile radius want to die like democracy would in darkness.
So, funny story. Our latest 2020 Democrat presidential challenger made his name, in part, by starting a journalistic empire. And, if that empire’s reaction to his announcement is any indication, they want democracy to die, at least by the standards of The Post.
On Sunday, as former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg formally announced the worst-kept secret in politics — that he was entering the presidential field — Bloomberg News announced they wouldn’t be investigating him or anyone else in the Democratic field.
“We will continue our tradition of not investigating Mike (and his family and foundation) and we will extend the same policy to his rivals in the Democratic primaries. We cannot treat Mike’s democratic competitors differently from him,” Bloomberg editor-in-chief John Micklethwait said in a staff memo, first reported by The Hill.
“We have already assigned a reporter to follow his campaign (just as we did when Mike was in City Hall),” Micklethwait said. “And in the stories we write on the presidential contest, we will make clear that our owner is now a candidate.”
So in other words, they’ll provide desultory coverage of his candidacy but they won’t investigate him because … of a conflict of interest? If that conflict of interest is apparent during investigations, why wouldn’t it be the same during coverage of Bloomberg?
Micklethwait added in the memo that Bloomberg News will use other “credible journalistic institution(‘s)” investigative reports on Bloomberg or his competitors.
“It will continue to cover polls, interview candidates and assign reporters to follow their campaigns, including Bloomberg’s, according to the memo,” The Hill reported.
This is genuinely staggering news inasmuch as it admits that Bloomberg News is not a credible journalistic institution. Michael Bloomberg has been involved in organizational politics since 2001, when the billionaire sourpuss and gun scold became a candidate (eventually successful) for Gracie Mansion.
What they’re admitting is that in the 18 years that have followed — long enough for anyone who was born during Bloomberg’s mayoral campaign to vote for him in the 2020 primaries — absolutely no credible mechanism has been established to allow the newsroom in one of America’s most prominent media organizations to independently investigate its owner or his opponents without interference from him.
Furthermore, what they’re admitting is in those 18 years — in which Bloomberg’s most prominent role has been as a public figure and not as a Rupert Murdoch or A.G. Sulzberger type — the organization’s owner has made no substantively successful effort to divest himself from running Bloomberg News in a way where it would almost be run as an independent blind trust.
No arrangement has been made where he would have no role in controlling hires or editorial decisions and no mechanism to return to either of those roles if he got his power tie in a bunch over their reporting.
If making this kind of arrangement was such an issue, Bloomberg could have spun off the general news division and isolated it from Bloomberg L.P., his primary umbrella company, then sold it. His name in the title would have made as near as no difference if he didn’t own it.
That he’s made no such move during the better part of two decades — a time during which he’s been not infrequently mentioned as a plausible presidential candidate — is telling.
No, he didn’t allow Bloomberg News to investigate his campaigns and administration. As for Bloomberg’s pet issues — like gun control and climate change — his news organization’s coverage tends to be written as if the writers were kissing up to the owner in the most grotesquely wheedling sort of way.
If you needed a reason why the newsroom doesn’t feel as if it’s fully independent enough of its owner to investigate him or his rivals, I could think of worse reasons than that.
In short, Bloomberg News’ self-imposed darkness is going to have some interesting effects on democracy in one particular corner of the media.
And perhaps it would be a lot better for the candidate if a major news organization decided not to cover him.
Bloomberg’s primary strategy seems to hinge on a record $37 million ad buy, according to ABC News, which focuses on five battleground states.
Whether or not this works — there are plenty of other news organizations that have covered this strategy. If one was to glean any tone of approval from these reports, it was only for the sheer audacity of the thing.
Candidates seemed to notice, too.
“I just don’t think people are going to buy it, that you just … put a bunch of money,” Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said of Bloomberg, according to Politico. “Maybe the argument is, ‘Hey, I’ve got more money than the guy in the White House.’ I don’t think they’re going to buy that.”
“I think they want someone different,” Klobuchar added.
Well, I don’t think that someone’s going to be Amy Klobuchar, but she isn’t wrong. What’s Bloomberg’s angle here? That he’s going to grab guns harder than anyone else in the field? That didn’t work for Beto.
He’s spent a lot of money fighting climate change? And everyone else in the field has spent their time fighting it legislatively, which tends to be a bit more effective in the whole political arena.
Ah, but he’s a billionaire. Yes, that’s unpopular, but he’s created jobs. He’s built things. That must count for something, right?
Quoth Kellyanne Conway: “Michael Bloomberg is saying rebuild America. America already elected a builder.”
Ouch. Have fun wasting your money, though, Mr. Bloomberg — and proving that your news organization lacks the independence or objectivity to cover your campaign correctly.
Democracy may not be dying in darkness, but one can only hope your newsroom does.
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