Howard French
Howard French

In a detailed write-up for the Columbia Journalism Review former foreign correspondent Howard French describes how Bloomberg started to engage in political reporting in China, to compete with the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, but killed a successful journalism project, after China´s power-brokers turned up the heat.

Howard French:

Meanwhile, just prior to publication, (former Bloomberg reporter Michael) Forsythe, the lead writer on the pending Xi article, who was then based in Beijing with his family, began receiving death threats. The first of these was indirectly conveyed via a China scholar at Columbia University who was passing along a conversation he had heard from a Chinese acquaintance, saying vaguely that Forsythe had better watch out. Later, Forsythe received a similar message relayed via a foreign press colleague in Beijing.

“What was extremely upsetting to me was that when we started getting death threats, Bloomberg told us that we were not allowed to speak about it,” said Leta Hong Fincher, a China scholar who is married to Forsythe. She contrasted the way that Bloomberg handled reported pressure from Chinese authorities with the response of The New York Times a few months later, after its prize-winning work from China was published. The Times had spoken forthrightly about the challenges of doing hard-hitting reporting in China, while Bloomberg sought to muffle discussion, she said.

Both companies have faced bans on their products in China since their groundbreaking investigative work.

For the Times, it has meant the blocking of a costly new Chinese language website, whose primary market is in China, and difficulties obtaining residency visas for its reporters, especially for new reporters rotating into the country as older hands leave.

The differing interests in the market seem to have dictated differing responses to official pressure. In particular, Fincher cited a December 2013 column by the public editor, Margaret Sullivan, which presented the Times’ attitude as stoicism in the face of difficulties like these and quoted the newspaper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., as saying that the Times “doesn’t flinch.”

Fincher said that Bloomberg has threatened legal action against her, but unlike her husband she is not bound by any confidentiality agreement. The Sullivan column appeared shortly after reports that Bloomberg had killed its big new investigative project.

Much more in the Columbia Journalism Review.

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