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Bloomberg News once again finds itself subject to unwelcome scrutiny over allegations that it is soft-pedaling coverage in China to appease the country's top government officials. Last week, the parent company's chairman suggested some hard-hitting reports weren't welcome. And a longtime Bloomberg editor now says he quit over the company's decision not to publish an investigative piece about a politically connected Chinese mogul.
We'll hear the remarks of both men in this story from NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The parent company of Bloomberg News actually earns the vast bulk of its profits from terminals offering exclusive financial data and analysis; 320,000 clients pay $20,000 a year a piece to lease them.
Last week, Bloomberg LP chairman Peter Grauer told the Asia Society's Hong Kong chapter that a company like Bloomberg has to operate in China because it's the second largest economy in the world, and growing
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PETER GRAUER: We have about 50 journalists in the market, primarily writing stories about the local business and economic environment. And you're all aware that every once in awhile, we wander a little bit away from that and write stories that we probably may have kind of re-thank, rethought, should have rethought. But China, for us, is very important. We're very actively...
FOLKENFLIK: Those remarks set off shockwaves in journalistic circles. Back in 2012, journalists for Bloomberg News used public documents to show that relatives of the man who is now China's president, Xi Jinping, have acquired business interests worth hundreds of millions of dollars - an explosive charge in a country where decisions about property are made by the ruling communist party.
The scoop won prizes, but came at a price. Since then, Chinese authorities have delayed issuing visas for Bloomberg's journalists, sent investigators unannounced to search its bureaus, and ordered state-owned companies not to sign new leases for Bloomberg terminals.
Until this month, Ben Richardson was a leading editor for Bloomberg's Asia coverage, based in Hong Kong. Last fall, he edited an investigative piece focusing on a Chinese billionaire investor's ties to the ruling Chinese Politburo.
BEN RICHARDSON: We were getting close to publication, and that story was spiked. It was a decision made by very senior members of Bloomberg's editorial team. And it's a decision that I felt very uncomfortable with.
FOLKENFLIK: Bloomberg's editor-in-chief, Matthew Winkler, participated in a charged phone conversation with several Asia-based journalists for the news service, Richardson among them. According to Richardson, Winkler said the families of the Chinese Politburo were off-limits. Richardson decided to quit after the call, but left earlier this month.
Bloomberg has declined to respond to specific questions from NPR. But New York-based senior Bloomberg editors tell NPR the unpublished story was simply not yet ready for public consumption.
Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, the company's founder, made a rare appearance at Bloomberg News' daily editorial planning meeting yesterday. He declared that despite Grauer's remarks, news decisions would always be made exclusively on the grounds of newsworthiness by news executives, and not for business reasons. And indeed, Bloomberg has recently published stories on topics unlikely to please the Chinese, such as pollution and concerns of a looming credit crisis.
Richardson tells NPR that his former colleagues have received a different message.
RICHARDSON: It's just that when you've got a commercial interest - and you're going up against the Chinese government - it suddenly becomes, you know, it's a no-win situation for a company. So, you know, they made this commercial decision.
FOLKENFLIK: Emily Parker explores digital freedom of expression in China in her new book, "Now I Know Who My Comrades Are." She says Bloomberg is especially vulnerable because of its terminal business.
EMILY PARKER: Some of these comments by Bloomberg have said: Well, these investigative stories are hurting our bottom line, and we need to stick to financial and business journalism, primarily. And the problem with that logic is that in China, the line between business and politics - or economics and politics - is often very, very thin.
FOLKENFLIK: Parker is also former State Department official and Wall Street Journal Asia writer. She says it's important to note Bloomberg isn't alone.
PARKER: Western journalists face a choice - which is, do we do report on anything we want, and do we say anything we want, and risk being thrown out of China? Or do we make certain concessions, and continue to be able to operate here?
FOLKENFLIK: Richardson, the former Bloomberg Asia editor, says ruefully that he can't find many other news organizations who want to pay him to do provocative investigations in China. He says he intends to set up a not-for-profit news site to continue that work.
David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.
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