The weekend brought some disappointing, unsurprising and vaguely peculiar media news: Bloomberg News hitched its wagon to John Heilemann, formerly of New York, and Mark Halperin, formerly of Time. These two gentlemen are, along with Chris Cillizza and Politico, responsible for reducing political coverage to its current, frightfully superficial state. For these folks, it’s of great importance who ”won the morning” and who had the worst week in Washington. And, of course, no matter what mishap befalls any politician, it will be good news for John McCain—a head-scratcher that is, for some reason, considered gospel.
Heilemann and Halperin have been given $1 million apiece to found and run a politics site. It’s not a surprise; Bloomberg News long ago expanded its editorial portfolio, jettisoning its single-minded focus on business and finance. For example, 2011 saw the launch of Bloomberg View, a dull, fairly centrist editorial page. It’s almost impressively unimpressive, populated by such lesser lights as Stephen Carter, Megan McArdle, Clive Crook and Peter Orszag.
So: What do Heilemann and Halperin bring to the table? Well, says Justin Smith, chief executive of Bloomberg Media Group, they’re the “epitome of the type of quality journalistic talent that moves seamlessly between different kinds of platforms.” This word salad is a fancy-talk for “they’re good on television,” which isn’t exactly true.
The Game Change authors, report the Times, will “anchor a daily television program that will also stream online, as well as write news articles and take part in live events…”
The site might also expand to include international coverage, Mr. Smith said. New employees would be hired, though Mr. Smith declined to specify a number. Current Bloomberg reporters and editors will contribute from Washington and New York.
In theory, it’s a fine idea for Bloomberg to strengthen its political coverage. So much of what passes for it these days is embarrassing. But Heilemann and Halperin—who, by the way, are celebrity journalists and not editors—are an odd choice to run the show. On his own, Heilemann is actually an excellent reporter. But Halperin—whose fame seems to rest on his ability to spout the conventional wisdom and, like Dick Morris, a willingness to make half-baked predictions—is not. He’s a guy who believed, in all seriousness, that “you could imagine a scenario of [Donald Trump] getting in late and riding a populist wave to the Republican nomination.”
As a duo, they’re a bit better, perhaps because Heilemann dampens Halperin’s hackish impulses. But, as Isaac Chotiner showed in an assessment of Double Down, they are perfectly capable of spinning a story they know to be false. In their telling, excerpted in New York, the 2012 election was actually quite close, and the debate prep for the second debate nearly sunk President Obama. Outside of Andrew Sullivan, who tends not to think before he types, no one with much intelligence believed this; a week after the debate, Nate Silver had Romney’s chance of victory at an unimpressive 38.9%. On some level, noted Chotiner, “Heilemann and Halperin must know that elections are not decided by the ins and outs of debate preparation.” Which makes their decision to pretend otherwise rather cynical, and does not give one hope for their Bloomberg coverage.
To their credit, their talk-to-everyone-in-the-room, fly-on-the-wall reporting strategy worked pretty well with Game Change. It’s an entertaining book and a massive bestseller. (Here, I think, it’s worth mentioning a dirty little secret of the publishing industry: Simply because a book is a New York Times bestseller does not mean it has sold enough copies to get its author off the publicity tour death march, much less make back its advance.) But Double Down—for which Heilemann and Halperin were reportedly given an advance of $5 million—entered the New York Times list at #3 and quickly vanished. According to BookScan numbers passed along by a publishing industry source, in the 26 weeks since publication, Double Down has sold 87,995 copies. Over the same period, Game Change sold 409,639 copies. Perhaps the returns for this type of journalism are diminishing.
That aside, the prospect of Bloomberg News political coverage is also fraught with other issues, no matter who is at the top of the masthead. What happens if Michael Bloomberg—still the majority owner of Bloomberg LP—intends to re-enter politics? One would like to think that Bloomberg News would place a premium on the editorial independence of its political reporters, but, as we learned last year, management is perfectly willing to put its thumb on the scales.