Multiple updates below.
Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, the answer is no. On Thursday I documented a blatantly false Bloomberg news story designed to mislead readers about the level of support for President Obama’s temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling. Bloomberg’s poll (PDF), which the story was based on, asked the following (bottom of page five): “Do you think the spill proves off-shore drilling is just too dangerous and should be banned in U.S. waters, or was this a freak accident and offshore drilling can be made safer and should not be banned?” Based on this question, the Bloomberg headline blared: Americans in 73% Majority Oppose Deepwater Drilling Ban. The story begins, “Most Americans oppose President Barack Obama’s ban on deepwater oil drilling in response to BP Plc’s Gulf of Mexico spill…” Bloomberg made the same false claim two days later in a Businessweek story.
Obviously, there is a huge difference between an indefinite ban on all offshore drilling and President Obama’s temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling. Regardless, Bloomberg polled about the former and reported on the latter. And frankly, I use the word ‘reported’ extremely loosely here. What Bloomberg actually did is fabricate public opinion information on a highly contested public policy issue that is currently being considered in some form by all three branches of government. This is important because political actors, both within Congress and the Obama Administration, may look to public opinion polls like this one to determine the proper course of action.
I’m not alone in finding Bloomberg’s reporting on this poll to be highly objectionable. Several thoughtful observers have taken note, criticizing Bloomberg’s coverage on similar grounds. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones writes, “This is stunningly bad journalism… The Bloomberg results make for an exciting headline, but that’s about it. Correlation with reality is pretty close to zero.” At Media Matters, Eric Boehlert explains, “There’s an apples-and-oranges problem here that Bloomberg News ought to acknowledge and correct.” The Washington Post’s Jon Cohen adds, “The latter question is useful to understanding public attitudes, but it’s not necessarily focused on the ban that’s in place. That question potentially confounds views on the short-term ban, drilling more broadly and the cause of the spill.” And Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism writes, “I could tell from the mere headline that the poll question was inept and/or unduly suggestive.”
Atlantic Monthly has corrected their piece that cited the Bloomberg article, explaining, “This post formerly read that 73 percent of Bloomberg respondents thought the deepwater drilling moratorium was ‘unnecessary.’ This assertion directly reflected Bloomberg’s article about the poll, but has been revised to reflect the polling language.”
Since Thursday, I’ve been in contact with the following reporters, editors and public relations staff at Bloomberg news:
- Kim Chipman — The reporter who wrote the story.
- Al Hunt — Washington Executive Editor.
- Laura Colby — Managing Editor.
- Ronald Henkoff — Editor.
- Eric Pooley — Bloomberg Businessweek Deputy Editor.
- Ty Trippet — Director of Global Public Relations.
- Joe Winski — Managing Editor, Regulations.
- William Hawley — Senior Editor.
- Jon Asmundsson — Senior Editor / Strategies Associate Editor.
- Gail Connor Roche — Senior Editor.
I did not receive a response from Kim Chipman, William Hawley, Jon Asmundsson, Gail Connor Roche, Laura Colby or Ronald Henkoff. I also reached out to three additional individuals on the Bloomberg public relations staff, but did not hear back from any of them. Both Eric Pooley and Joe Winski told me they’d look into the situation and indicated they’d get back to me, but both subsequently failed to provide any additional information.
Joe Winski informed me that Al Hunt supervises Bloomberg’s poll coverage, and that Mr. Hunt wanted me to give him a call to discuss my concerns. After leaving two voicemails for Mr. Hunt without receiving a return call, I finally got through. Mr. Hunt claimed not to know who I was or why I was calling. He told me that he was not the right person to talk to about my concern. He told me to contact him by email, since he was in the middle of a conference call. When I did so, I received the following response from Mr. Hunt:
mr nelson: why don’t you write back a serious response that doesn’t contain such silly assertions as intentionally misleading reporting or sloppy journalism.
I replied with the following:
The facts speak for themselves. The story in question is factually incorrect.
You have a choice to make: you can correct the highly misleading story or instead shift the focus to me.
As an editor with responsibility for ensuring the accuracy of such stories, I assume you’ll choose the former.
Again, the facts clearly speak for themselves.
Will you correct this obviously misreported story?
Here is Mr. Hunt’s full response:
Mr. Nelson: We appreciate your interest in our BP poll and understand that you think the conclusions we reported are wrong. We have reviewed the article in light of your comments and we believe we interpreted the poll data correctly. We encourage you to write a letter to the editor to express your views. Al Hunt, Executive Editor
Mr. Hunt did not respond to my subsequent requests for clarification.
Given Mr. Hunt’s inability to explain how Bloomberg’s reporting meshed with their own polling, I pursued another avenue. J. Ann Selzer, President of Selzer and Company, Inc, the firm that conducted the poll for Bloomberg, responded to my email but refused to answer any specific questions. She mentioned that Bloomberg editors had consulted with her about my line of questioning, and added, “There’s really nothing more to add to the conversation.”
Eric Pooley, Deputy Editor of Bloomberg Businessweek, indicated several times by email that he was looking into this. On Friday he emailed that he would be happy to talk to me about this but didn’t have time at the moment. By Saturday he had changed his tune, emailing:
Josh, sorry to say it but I’m not the right person to talk about this one, since I wasn’t involved in the poll or the story. It makes sense for someone who was involved to explain why they believe they have interpreted the data correctly. There’s a guy named Ty Trippet in Bloomberg PR — I’ll put you in touch with him. I think he can find the right person to walk you through the data.
I asked Mr. Pooley if he was responsible for ensuring the accuracy of Bloomberg Businessweek stories in his capacity as Deputy Editor of that publication, but did not receive a response. He did not respond to several subsequent emails seeking clarification.
After placing several calls and sending multiple emails to the Bloomberg public relations department I received the following response via email from Ty Trippet, Director of Global Public Relations:
We stand by our reporting.
When I pointed out that Eric Pooley had indicated that Mr. Trippet should be able to put me in touch with someone who could walk me through the polling data, he replied:
You have already spoken with Ann Selzer and others, and I have given you our response.
To summarize, I’ve been in contact with 13 Bloomberg employees and have been unable to identify anyone who a) cares that these stories include obviously false information, or b) can provide any sort of justification for the reporting. Both the Director of Global Public Relations and the Washington Executive Editor have indicated that they stand by their reporting. Anyone at Bloomberg who is able to justify the reporting in these stories, or would like to offer their own take on the veracity of the stories, is encouraged to contact me.
If anyone has suggestions for additional steps I can take in my efforts to get Bloomberg to correct their highly misleading stories, please let me know. In the meantime, I’d suggest to all journalists, bloggers and readers that they view Bloomberg’s reporting with a heavy dose of skepticism.
Update 2 — Hilariously, a transcript of an Al Hunt interview with Senator Kerry includes the following disclaimer:
This is not a legal transcript. Bloomberg LP cannot guarantee its accuracy.
Perhaps Bloomberg should consider including such a disclaimer on all of their stories.
Update 3 — The New Orleans Times-Picayune published an anti-moratorium editorial on Friday which cites Bloomberg’s false reporting:
In a Bloomberg national poll released last week, 85 percent of Republican respondents, 73 percent of independents and 65 percent of Democrats said they opposed the administration’s drilling ban as well. They felt that the wide-ranging moratorium is punishing an entire industry and region for BP’s catastrophe.
Terri Troncale, Editorial Page Editor at the Times-Picayune, did not respond to multiple emails seeking clarification. The Times-Picayune has also declined to publish my Letter to the Editor explaining their mistake.
Update 4 — Joining the American Petroleum Institute and the Offshore Marine Service Association, Gulf Coast United is at least the third oil industry-affiliated organization to use Bloomberg’s faulty reporting to argue against a temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling. This underscores the seriousness of Bloomberg’s failure to correct their blatantly false reporting.
Update 5 — Media watchdog site Mediabugs contacted Joe Winski about this and received the following response:
“We’ve said all we’re going to say about that.”
Update 6 — Scott Rosenberg at PBS reviewed the situation and explored some possibilities for Bloomberg’s odd behavior:
So why is Bloomberg being so obstinate? Here, it seems to me, are the possible scenarios:
* Bloomberg dislikes the messenger. Unquestionably, Nelson could have pursued his complaint with more diplomatic finesse. One of his blog posts was headlined, “Does Anyone at Bloomberg News Care About Accuracy?” Bloomberg’s defensive response may be explained as a natural human reaction to hostile criticism, but it cannot be excused on those grounds. Editors shouldn’t make decisions about corrections out of pique. Journalists who care about accuracy have a duty to ignore their personal feelings about critics, to peel away the emotion and consider the substance, if any, of the criticism.
* Bloomberg is just really busy and uninterested in worrying about yesterday’s news. Every news organization is strapped these days, and spending a lot of time sifting through “shoulda-coulda’s” from last week’s news budget is generally viewed as a luxury at best. We can empathize with harried newsroom managers, but we can’t give them a pass. Their future depends on readers’ perception that they hold themselves to higher standards than the average person who posts unvetted information online. And on the web there is no such thing as “yesterday’s news.” Yesterday’s error is republished over and over until it is properly corrected.
* Bloomberg really believes there is no problem here. This one is hard for me to believe, given the evidence. But if it’s the case, surely the editors can see the value in actually making their rationale known rather than keeping it to themselves.
All the scenarios point to the same logic: By refusing to give its critic a thorough response, Bloomberg only hurts itself.
Update 7 — Jonah Goldberg is now citing Bloomberg’s factually incorrect reporting to make a convoluted point about President Obama and energy policy.
Update 8 — The Society of Environmental Journalists has now picked this story up.
Update 9 — In response to a query I sent, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg emailed to say he’ll take a look at this when he has a chance. Tellingly, he adds:
In the meantime, have you seen a correction from bloomberg? Since [their] reporting of their own poll seems to be the problem.
I’ll update again here when I hear back from Goldberg or when he corrects his column.
Update 10 — Media Matters: Does working for Bloomberg News mean never having to say you’re sorry?
Update 11 — The Art Science Research Laboratory’s Media Ethics Project: Blogger calls out Bloomberg News for misinterpreted poll, lack of correction
In my column on the Gulf Spill last week, I said that according to a Bloomberg poll, 65% of Democrats opposed Obama’s ban. I said this because that’s the way Bloomberg reported it. A persistent emailer points out that the actual poll question isn’t about Obama’s six month ban but whether respondents support an indefinite or permanent ban. He’s right, (see bottom of page 5 of the poll).
Update 13 — The Dallas Morning News, which had also run the Jonah Goldberg column, issued the following correction on page A13 of Tuesday’s paper (PDF):
Update 14 — The smart folks over at MediaBugs have done some excellent follow-up work on this. They interviewed a former Bloomberg journalist who provided some compelling perspective on why Bloomberg is so reluctant to make correction.
Certainly there were situations where you realize something is wrong but you’re gonna say “I didn’t see that” or just forget about it. At Bloomberg that’s considered a really serious offense … but at the same time, if you or nobody else mentions it … no harm no foul. They see this case as a question of interpretation, a judgment call — this is their own poll, a lot of reporters and editors are involved, so they [would all] get a correction. So they aren’t going to want to do it.
Pretty damning, I’d say.
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