Award-winning journalist Michael Forsythe was fired over the weekend, and China watchers are aghast.
Bloomberg, already on the credibility hot seat for killing a series of stories “that might anger China”, lost the rest of its integrity by firing the lead reporter on the series which would have further exposed the financial interests of China’s senior leadership.
The company dismissed Forsythe on suspicions of leaking details about the investigative story that was allegedly quashed because it would damage the media company’s operations in China.
Last year, Forsythe reported that the family of Xi Jinping, then China’s vice president and now president, controlled assets valued at over half a billion US dollars, including a hillside villa and other property in Hong Kong valued at over US$55 million.
He also led the investigative team which reported that the richest 70 members of China’s legislature had a net worth greater than all 660 members of the US Congress, the US president, his cabinet and the entire Supreme Court.
Forsythe’s dismissal is an ugly twist to an already ugly story, one in which Bloomberg defended its decision to spike the stories by arguing it was similar to appeasing the Nazis. The stories would have reported on financial ties between Chinese business leaders and the Chinese government.
According to several sources within the company, editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler was concerned that publishing the pieces would result in Bloomberg getting “kicked out” of the country.
Worse than the self-censorship, if that’s possible, is the fact that the stories were scheduled to run the same month Bloomberg’s chief executive was “visiting China to strengthen business ties between the media-sensitive country and the financial services company”.
Bloomberg’s financial services arm sells specialized data terminals to Chinese companies which monitor and analyze real-time financial market data.
Last week, the New York Times’ Ed Wong, reported on the existence of “Code 204”, a line of coding that Bloomberg editors attach to certain articles on political and social issues in China so that they don’t appear on financial terminals on the mainland.
The reaction to Forsythe’s firing from fellow journalists and China watchers has been supportive:
“Mike is world class investigative reporter steeped in integrity,” said James L. McGregor, former chief executive of Dow Jones & Company and Wall Street Journal China bureau chief.
“Mike Forsythe is a reporter of exemplary probity and professionalism. Having worked the same beat for years, I know none better,” said Chris Buckley, reporter in China for the New York Times.
“For those outside China, Forsythe, suspended by Bloomberg, is an outstanding reporter of great integrity,” said Tania Branigan, China correspondent for the Guardian.
“What’s happened to Michael Forsythe, if true, is so much worse than anything that’s happened to foreign reporters in China in last 18 months,” said Melissa Chan, formerly Al Jazeera’s correspondent in China before she was unceremoniously expelled from China in 2012 and labeled a “foreign bitch” by high-profile state television presenter Yang Rui.
“Shame on Bloomberg. Scapegoating Mike destroys Bloomberg’s own credibility,” said Louisa Lim, NPR correspondent based in Beijing.
“I have lost all respect for Bloomberg,” said Jeremiah Jenne, director of IES Abroad Beijing Center at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
“Must not be fun to be a Bloomberg journalist right now seeing management treat such an awesome reporter and good guy like Mike so shamefully,” said Bill Bishop, co-founder of CBS MarketWatch, and author of Sinocism, an indispensable daily newsletter on China.
According to the New York Times, several Bloomberg employees said that management made it clear that the company was in retreat on aspects of its coverage of the world’s second-largest economy.
Bloomberg ran into trouble in China last year after the Xi Jinping family wealth story was published. Its website was blocked almost immediately, and has been ever since.
Ray Kwong is a China commentator. He writes on China for Forbes. He is also a China business development strategist and marketing consultant.
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