‘If we aren’t paid, we don’t eat’
October 5, 2017

Matthew Winkler, co-founder and editor-in-chief emeritus, Bloomberg News, was in Chennai to deliver the inaugural address of the Asian College of Journalism’s class of 2017-18. Renowned for his focus on accuracy in news reporting, Winkler spoke on a range of issues to Suresh Seshadri and K. Bharat Kumar. Excerpts:

Did you ever have to worry about content becoming free?
We have had this truly existential debate as long as we have been around. What it comes down to is, we all would love everything we do to be paid for directly. And, first and foremost, Mike Bloomberg, the founder, owner and CEO of Bloomberg has been explicit that if we don’t get paid for what we do, we don’t eat. And, I agree. However, we have also said that we want our journalists to be as influential as they could possibly be. In order to be influential, at least some of what they do has to be read, heard and viewed by the widest possible audience.

Because you never know, there could be someone in that audience who could be affected by that reporting in some way and who would not necessarily be a Bloomberg Terminal user and we want our reporters to be most influential. So, we have always have had this debate – what can be unbundled from Bloomberg, that isn’t a set price. It’s an issue that won’t go away.

(From left) Sukumar Ranganathan, editor, Mint; N Ram, trustee, Media Development Foundation; Matthew Winkler, co-founder and editor-in-chief Emeritus, Bloomberg News; Sashi Kumar, chairman and trustee, MDF; Parry Ravindranathan, managing director International, Bloomberg Media; and Raghavan Srinivasan, editor, BusinessLine, during the inauguration of The Asian College of Journalism-Bloomberg Programme on business and financial journalism in Chennai.

Your reputation precedes you, given your relentless focus on facts…
Just because things are asserted, it does not make them true. I have said that and continue to say that. The risk, in the period or time we are in now, our time, people can and do say anything. Whatever they say, travels instantly around the world and it’s preserved forever, even if it’s not true. And even if it’s not true and it’s important, then it is calamitous. Just because people say things does not mean they are newsworthy. And, having something asserted does not make it true.

How should journalists prepare for reporting in today’s world?
Part of being a successful journalist is knowing how to learn and that learning is continuous, it’s perpetual; that, to be a worthy journalist is to be a learner willing to learn, which means having the capacity to obtain as much factual information about whatever the subject is. To do that requires knowledge and skill: knowledge as in knowing what you don’t know and how to know what you don’t know; and skill as in where to obtain that knowledge.
Journalists should be aware of how the global, national, regional economy works, what drives business, what goes into technology, how markets work. Those are very important parts of the equation that are marginalised and I think they should be put in front of everybody as the main focus. If journalists have that knowledge and understanding, they can be much more effective reporting on events.

With proliferation of fake news, do you see a redefinition of ethics for journalists?
Every journalist should start with the premise that if it isn’t true, it isn’t news. So, every journalist should always go about his or her reporting or editing with the aspiration: ‘accuracy above all else’. That is not new, but a traditional mandate and I still think the same mandate [is the same] today as it was decades ago. That’s what we should be doing. That’s what journalism is. There’s going to be plenty of people attempting to impersonate journalists now perhaps more than ever. But they are impersonations, not the real thing.

Is it a matter of time before the impersonators fade away?
I am not sure this is so much a phenomenon of our times. It is greater or exaggerated perhaps now, but it’s always been with us. What people call fake news isn’t the creation of the 21st Century. There has been fake news throughout history. It’s not going to go away.

You had talked about the perils of anonymous sourcing…
None of us ever wants to wind up, ever, having to correct reporting that turned out to be false. None of us wants to be in that situation. However we do our reporting, the result should always be accuracy above all else.
If we are going to do our reporting with anonymous sourcing we have to have such a rigid, rigorous process of vetting and verifying that anonymous reporting so that we have a high degree of confidence that it’s accurate.

It’s not an infallible process. If we think we have all the resources to make anonymous reporting have integrity, so be it. But it’s not an easy thing.

Journalists have traditionally been generalists. Have you seen a shift to specialists happening in your time?
As I said before, the best journalists are learners who have an insatiable appetite for information, are eternally curious. That is another way of saying what you would consider a generalist. [Because], the most capable journalist is one who is willing always to seek information well beyond whatever zone of comfort that journalist is used to.
That is what learning is about – going outside your comfort zone. Which is not different from some-one who you would call a generalist. Generalist is a compliment. Generalist is one who recognises that every event taps into different sources of information and, if you like, specialities; and there is no one speciality or area that is sufficient to address everything that is going on. Being a generalist is a compliment, and an asset, not a liability.

With availability of data increasing, are financial journalists in danger of being only analysts?
I don’t think that financial journalism is any worse or better than people who are political, sports or entertainment reporters. The risk of inserting one’s opinion is universal, not specialised.

In today’s world of fake news, what signs should one watch out for?
As in any presentation, in any field, any discipline or subject, the use of facts can be superficial or comprehensive. The more comprehensive and detailed, the more credible the information. Most fake news, if not all of it, is typically a superficial assemblage… It’s light or superficial packaging. Readers who want only accurate information should be skittish about what is presented as factual that you can see is porous in its content. It’s missing too many data points to be taken seriously. Again, a lot of fake news is asserted, as opposed to reported.

In the age of Twitter, with its 140-character limit, what do you see for long-form journalism?
Long-form journalism has as much a future as it ever had. And that’s reflected in so many periodicals, publications, news organisations that happily deliver narratives that are in the 1000s of words. They wouldn’t be doing it if there wasn’t an appetite for it and that appetite has been and always will be robust, even as we consume the Tweets with greater interest than ever.

Can there ever be a human side to financial reporting? Is it easier to bring in the human element in other forms of journalism?
No. I would say that financial or economic reporting has all kinds of opportunities for what you just referred to as the human element. It takes some effort, skill and knowledge to get the examples and the anecdotes that reveal the human element. But they are there.In fact, I would argue that in some ways, they are more prevalent in a financial or economic context than they are in some other categories. The reason for that is, wherever there are a lot of data points, the individuals can’t be far behind. The data refers to the people. It’s about human behaviour.

The data reported in the financial context, whether it’s out of the market, the economy or corporate performance, is about human behaviour. It is not theoretical. It’s factual.

What would you pick as the biggest story, in your time, that has changed or touched the world?
Bloomberg News came into its own in the years leading to and throughout the financial crisis and the ensuing recession. Because, all the skills and knowledge we had acquired in our youth, our adolescence as a news organisation, we definitely put to use in the most challenging circumstances for the world, to good effect. An example of that is… Bloomberg News was the first news organisation to put two words together in the context of the global economy: toxic debt. And toxic debt was the principal cause of the financial crisis. Bloomberg News was the first news organisation to really dissect the creation, supply and distribution of toxic debt from Wall Street to the world. Bloomberg News, following the crisis and the recession that ensued, was the only news organisation, (it still is), to sue the Federal Reserve to obtain what it considered in the public interest, data about the bailout of the banks, [as to] who have got what monies from the Fed. It was trillions of dollars at the time, and the Fed was not willing to share that information even though the Fed is the agent if you will, of the public. And Bloomberg News successfully, in court, got the Fed to release all the data that showed the scope of the rescue of the financial industry. So, I think that period for us was extraordinary and we made an invaluable contribution.

You have been uncomfortable with anonymous sourcing of stories…?
What I thought was difficult, to say the least, was in the course of reporting what people reported as mergers and acquisitions deals. Acquisitions is what they really are. One company acquires another. Because so much of that kind of reporting was anonymously sourced, it was far too subject to the risk of being misleading. Because, it favoured the sources of information.

I’ll give you an example. It was a really big deal, the biggest of the time. German car company Daimler acquiring Chrysler – 1998. In the initial reporting of that acquisition, which was anonymous, was first of all said to be ‘a merger of equals’. And, it was also reported as going to be an ‘example of one of the great deals of our time’. It was the end of the 20th Century, two very big companies, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, were getting together in a merger of equals, it was going to be a great deal…

Well, it was the worst deal in the history of Daimler. It took, dare I say, more than 10 years for Daimler shareholders to recover from that disaster, that transaction. It was so bad for Daimler shareholders.
Had the reporting of it at the time been transparent, if people who did not have a vested interest been able to talk about that deal, the initial reporting would have been very different from what it was. It was a giant commercial, if you will, for the investment bankers doing the deal, who got paid a lot of money for the deal. But that deal was fundamentally not in the interest of the acquiring company – the proof is, it was a disaster for Daimler shareholders. That is what I mean about how hazardous anonymous reporting is.

What would be an ideal process? Would you insist on two different sources confirming the news?
Here’s the thing. When you are talking to sources who are by agreement, anonymous, there are all kinds of restrictions. Some of it may be that you can’t share this with anyone else. If you are a reporter and would like to interview a professor of mergers and acquisitions and get a perspective on it to share with your readers, and you say to the professor, ‘By the way, I am about to report that Daimler is acquiring Chrysler. What do you think about it?’ But the restriction is that you can’t share it with the professor because your source does not want the professor to know. The deal has not been disclosed. So you can’t do the reporting you would otherwise do. You can’t go where you need to go to make that reporting complete. So, when you are totally reliant on anonymous sources, you are already handicapped. You are already operating as a journalist with restrictions that prevent you from sharing the whole truth and nothing but the truth with your readers.

What is your view on identity of sources having to be shared with editors?
It think that is essential. The editor is also responsible for not only content but [for] the other reporters, the reputation, the well-being of and what’s at stake for his or her news company… So every precaution should be taken to ensure that in the process of reporting and editing, everything that can be done to be sure that what’s reported is accurate, is being done. That is at a minimum, a necessity. Because, the editor has a professional obligation to ensure that all reporting is true.

Even when the Washington Post was breaking stories on the Watergate scandal, the publisher didn’t really know the identity of the main source.

Ben Bradlee was the editor and Bradlee did know what the reporters were doing and had more than an idea of the process of their reporting. He was pretty rigorous about it. But they also made mistakes. It’s in their book. And it wasn’t just over Watergate. Washington Post got into a few difficulties with anonymous reporting. It was over Jimmy’s World — a 10-year old drug addict. Except that Jimmy was completely made up – fake news. They got a Pulitzer Prize for that and had to return the prize for Jimmy’s World which was a non-story, fake news. That was the Washington Post, the great Washington Post that Bradlee created. By the way, he didn’t have anything to do with this story, directly. But it shows you the hazards of anonymous reporting.

Did you ever have to insist on reporters revealing sources? Was it rare or frequent?
Fortunately, we didn’t have any great mistakes over anonymously sourced stories. That would be the total irony – after fighting it for so long if we got into trouble for anonymous reporting. Fortunately, we didn’t have that mishap. We made other mistakes, far too many other mistakes.

(Courtesy: The Hindu)

July-September 2017