Bloomberg News and Hidden Premises


The entrance of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg into the Democratic primary contest triggered arguments over what impact he might have on dynamics of the race, as well as the role of billionaires in presidential politics. But his run also opened up debate among journalists over what it means to be an independent news organization, given that the Mayor-turned-presidential-candidate owns 89% of the parent company of Bloomberg News.


Bloomberg News


Bloomberg News started as a way to deliver business and financial news and opinion to Bloomberg Terminals, devices used by nearly all financial professionals – the success of which made Michael Bloomberg one of the world’s wealthiest people. Over the years, the organization expanded news delivery to print and Internet and today covers business and politics with original news reporting, including investigative journalism.


While the Bloomberg News organization faced ethical dilemmas when their owner ran for office and then became a public figure as Mayor of New York, those challenges expanded dramatically once the Mayor jumped into the Democratic presidential primary race. So how should a company that views itself as an independent news organization cover a race when everyone’s ultimate boss is one of the candidates?


A matter of fairness


In a memo to editorial staff (summarized in this CNBC story), Bloomberg News' Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait explained how the organization would proceed during the campaign. While they plan to continue running news stories about the primary, including poll results and interviews with candidates, when it comes to original investigative reporting Micklethwait said:


“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,”


Is this a reasonable solution to maintain independence or an abdication of journalistic responsibility? Before answering that it’s just a matter of opinion, let’s see what a little logic checking of the quote above might reveal.


Getting at the argument


In this initial series of Getting Started posts, you learned that real-world language can be turned into a structured argument consisting of premises leading to a conclusion. If we perform this translation process on Micklethwait’s quote, we get:


Premise 1: Bloomberg News has a policy of not doing investigative reporting on its owner Michael Bloomberg (or his family and foundation).

Premise 2: Michael Bloomberg is running for President.

Premise 3: It would be unfair to investigate Bloomberg’s competitors for the nomination while not investigating Bloomberg as a candidate.


Conclusion: Bloomberg News will not investigate Michael Bloomberg or any Democratic candidates during the Presidential nomination contest.


While we could check the quality of this argument using tests for validity and soundness you read about here, notice that this argument currently says nothing about the question we are trying to answer: whether Bloomberg News can continue to be an independent news organization while covering a political story in which its owner is playing a major role. In order to get the argument to perform that function, we need to revise it in order to create a link between the new policy and the subject at hand (journalistic independence).


Exposing hidden premises


Doing so involves adding hidden premises implied in Micklethwait’s statement, but not stated outright, as well as modifying the conclusion so that the argument now reads:


Premise 1: Bloomberg News has a policy of not doing investigative reporting on its owner Michael Bloomberg (or his family and foundation).

Premise 2: Michael Bloomberg is running for President.

Premise 3: It would be unfair to investigate Bloomberg’s competitors for the nomination while not investigating Bloomberg as a candidate.

Premise 4: [Hidden Premise] An independent news organization treats everyone fairly.

Premise 5: [Hidden Premise] Fairness involves not investigating all candidates if you do not investigate Bloomberg.


Conclusion: To maintain independence, Bloomberg News will not investigate Bloomberg or any Democratic candidates during the Presidential nomination contest.


If you recall, the first test of argument quality is validity in which you accept the premises as true and then decide if you can still reject the conclusion. In this case, the added premises and modification to the conclusion were made in such a way as to force the argument to be valid, so it should come as no surprise that our modified argument now passes the validity test.


Why go out of my way to force an argument into a valid format? Well remember that the second test of argument quality is a test for soundness which involves determining if one or more premises are false, or at least something a reasonable person could doubt. And forcing an argument into a valid structure often requires you to write the premises in such a way to expose an argument’s weaknesses.


A good argument?


Since one bad premise is all that is needed to fail the test for soundness, we could shoot down the revised argument by pointing out that Premise 5 defines fairness very narrowly.


For example, one could treat all of the candidates “fairly” by subjecting them all to the same level of investigative scrutiny, treating Michael Bloomberg not as the boss but as just another candidate for President. In fact, this would seem to be a better definition of fairness for a truly independent news organization compared to a definition that requires expanding what an independent news organization will not cover to avoid conflicts of interest.


Now someone (including editors at Bloomberg News) could object to my translations of their argument, pointing out that they were simply stating policy, not making an argument over journalistic independence. But if they want to claim that this policy preserves their independence, they must present an argument that uses something other than fairness to square the circle.


Another alternative might be for Bloomberg News to simply declare publicly that their unique situation requires them to cover the Democratic nomination in ways that might make them less reliable than other news sources, at least about this one subject while their chief stockholder is part of the story.


If the organization (or someone else) already has a stronger argument than the one I constructed from the original quote, send it to me or post it in the comments section and we'll see how well it fares in the logic-checking process.

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