Bloomberg News killed report on China’s leaders, quieted journalists: report

Bloomberg News killed report on China’s leaders, quieted journalists: report

Bloomberg News spiked an investigation into the wealth of Communist Party honchos in China six years ago because of concerns Beijing would retaliate against the media company and tried to get the wife of one of the reporters to sign a non-disclosure agreement to keep her quiet, according to a report Tuesday.

The investigation was a follow-up to a report in 2012 about how China’s ruling classes amassed wealth that would focus on the country’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, and the family of Chinese President Xi Jinping, NPR reported.

At the time, the company’s founder, Michael Bloomberg, was mayor of New York.

Bloomberg News published the first report over objections from the Chinese ambassador.

But as the reporters moved on to the follow-up, Mike Forsythe, a former Beijing correspondent for Bloomberg News who now works at the New York Times, and his wife, Leta Hong Fincher, began hearing from other journalists about what they considered death threats.

They moved to Hong Kong, where they believed they would be safer. In an interview with NPR, Fincher questioned why the story was killed and why Bloomberg News would want to assure her silence about it.

“They assumed that because I was the wife of their employee, I was the wife,” Fincher said. “I was just an appendage of their employee. I was not a human being.”

Nondisclosures became a focus of Bloomberg’s short Democratic presidential bid when Sen. Elizabeth Warren pressed him about claims of sexual harassment that were hidden because of confidentially agreements.

As Forsythe and the reporting team worked on the second part of the story into 2013, they remained in contact with editors in New York, Fincher said.

Then the story was killed.

“Mike and some of the other reporters and editors who had been working on this story just were asking for answers about … why was this story killed?” Fincher said.

Audio obtained by NPR of Bloomberg News editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler, in a private conference call with executives in New York and the reporting team, shows Winkler expressed uneasiness about publishing another report going after China’s top leaders.

“It is for sure going to, you know, invite the Communist Party to, you know, completely shut us down and kick us out of the country,” Winkler said. “So, I just don’t see that as a story that is justified.”

“They will probably kick us out of the country,” he said.

Following publication of the first investigative piece, Beijing searched Bloomberg News’ bureaus, delayed visas for reporters and ordered state-owned businesses to sign new leases for Bloomberg’s main product — its terminals.

The terminals, which cost $20,000 each for an annual subscription, are the backbone of the company and have made Michael Bloomberg a fortune.

Forbes estimates his worth at $50 billion.

At the time of the debate over the story, China was seen as a growing market for Bloomberg, three former executives told NPR.

Responding to reports in the New York Times about the internal fight, then-Mayor Bloomberg denied the story had been killed.

“Nobody thinks we are wusses and not willing to stand up and write stories that are of interest to the public and that are factually correct,” Bloomberg said.

He had officially given up control of the company, but NPR said Bloomberg remained in frequent contact with executives and shared his desires to expand into China.

Two months later — in January 2014 — Bloomberg was no longer mayor and offered up a new explanation.

“If a country gives you the license to do something with certain restrictions, you have two choices,” Bloomberg said at a town hall for his global newsroom, according to audio obtained by NPR. “You either accept the license and do it that way, or you don’t do business there.”

A month after that, Bloomberg LP board chairman Peter Grauer told the Asia Society’s Hong Kong chapter that it had 50 reporters in China to write about local business.

“Every once in a while, we wander a little bit away from that and write stories that we probably … should have rethought,” he said, according to NPR.

Through a corporate spokesman, Bloomberg LP and the former mayor declined to comment to NPR about the story.

Bloomberg News suspended Forsythe in 2013, claiming he leaked information about the controversy to other news media, and later fired him.

Forsythe declined to comment to NPR because of a nondisclosure agreement he signed.

Others on the investigative team also signed the same agreements, the report said, including at least one who signed the deal to prevent the loss of a month’s pay.

Fincher never signed the nondisclosure paperwork despite pressure from Bloomberg LP.

The company threatened to force Forsythe and Fincher to reimburse the tens of thousands of dollars spent to move them to Hong Kong after the death threats and sue them over the company’s legal costs.

During a meeting in the Bloomberg legal team’s Hong Kong offices, she remembers seeing a giant projection of the company’s outside lawyer in the New York offices.

When Forsythe assured the lawyer that his wife didn’t pose a threat, he responded: “What about all the evidence that’s in her head?”

“There was no reason why I should have to sign a nondisclosure agreement,” Fincher told NPR, “because I didn’t possess any damaging material about the company.”

The New York Times eventually published the story about China’s leaders.

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