The Bloomberg Politics expeditionary force touched down at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, airlifting a TV talk show, a documentarian, and a small army of journalists and technicians into the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center. Fortunately, the annual gathering of conservatives in National Harbor is not an event that rewards subtlety—within a couple of hours last Friday, I saw two men dressed in colonial-era garb, two others dressed as superheroes, and two stars of Duck Dynasty; all drew crowds.
Bloomberg Politics’ booth was situated in a hallway outside the ballroom where presidential hopefuls addressed the crowds, next to the NRA’s primo corner space, which was not in use when I visited. On Thursday, February 26, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker stopped by Bloomberg Politics’ set to “clarify” a speech in which he appeared to compare protesters in his home state to ISIS terrorists. “To me, that example is the closest thing I have in terms of taking on the pressure out there,” Walker told Bloomberg Politics’ John Heilemann and Mark Halperin afterward. You could start a long debate by asking whether Halperin and Heilemann’s type of inside-baseball coverage, reducing great issues of moral import to the level of a ballgame, is good for the republic. But maybe the more important question is just how many people would want to watch this particular game.
Bloomberg hired Halperin and Heilemann last year to build a politics publication with a robust TV and video operation. Bloomberg Politics launched in October, with journalists like Dave Weigel, Sasha Issenberg, and Jeanne Cummings aboard.
Heilemann wasn’t at CPAC last Friday when I visited Bloomberg Politics’ set. There, Phil Mattingly joined Halperin as co-anchor as former Hewlett-Packard CEO and US Senate candidate Carly Fiorina and Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint dropped by.
Outside the set, producer Matthew Negrin prepared for a light-hearted video with Fiorina. House of Cards’ new season had appeared on Netflix the night before. Negrin hadn’t had time to watch yet but told me “I read all the spoilers.” In the final video, shot by documentary filmmaker Griffin Hammond, Negrin tells Fiorina “I literally didn’t sleep” the night before, and the two share headphones and watch some HOC on his phone.
The comic touch was appropriate for CPAC. Bloomberg Politics reporter Arit John said she’d seen “Mostly college students here, mainly to network.” A group across the hall from her hotel room at the Gaylord had been partying righteously every night she said, but she hadn’t joined them yet: “My goal is not to take advantage of young drunk college kids,” John said. (In a fun story she wrote about the conference, John describes a visit to that room: “On Sunday morning a girl in a Reagan-Bush ’84 T-shirt opened the door, but declined to comment for this story.”)
Back at the set, Halperin was all business. “There’s almost no one else here trying to achieve at the level we are: World-class text stories, world-class live coverage, world-class reported video,” he said. Anchored coverage was particularly important to political coverage, he told me: “I love C-SPAN, it has a huge place in the universe, but a lot of people watch it and just see the raw feed and want to know: What’s the significance of what was said, what’s some smart analysis of what was said.”
Bloomberg Politics was streaming the video coverage coming out of CPAC, and some of that ended up on With All Due Respect, Halperin and Heilemann’s nightly show on Bloomberg Television. “Today’s lineup was kind of like a conservative Coachella,” Halperin said at the start of Friday night’s show, which bears some resemblance to ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption. (Jeb Bush didn’t drop by, but Halperin called his performance “strong and in many ways tough” and gave him a A-.)
The sports-show-like quality of With All Due Respect is not accidental.
“There’s a great way to cover politics that’s not just being a trade publication for Washington, DC, but thinking about all manners of ways in which politics, broadly defined, intersects with other parts of the country,” Halperin said. That’s how most people follow politics, as opposed to the people “who are only interested in bills getting out of subcommittee, or who’s hired which staffer for their Iowa campaign.”
That seems squarely aimed at Politico (which has itself sort of moved out of the micro-scoop business lately) and other DC publications, but Halperin didn’t name any competitors. If you accept the premise that any new media outlet is a form of media criticism, Halperin positioned Bloomberg Politics more as competition to media outlets that favored one platform over another. Newspapers, he said, had “never succeeded in doing a television show.” And cable news shows “have said, ‘Yeah, let’s beef up our website. Let’s have a more robust website.’ And again, do you go to the websites of any cable television shows?”
Bloomberg Politics’ niche, he said, would be “high-quality, nonpartisan, interesting, not just inside baseball, truly across all platforms. Everybody says that’s what they’re doing, but with few exceptions people aren’t really achieving that.”
If that advantage is real, it’s difficult to expect it might last for long. The 2016 presidential election is not exactly off other news organizations’ radar. To name but one competitor, CNN just hired Jeff Zeleny and is pouring resources into its digital political operation, which is led by Politico veteran Rachel Smolkin and features multi-platform natives like Peter Hamby and Dianna Heitz.
Further, the problem with covering politics like sports is that sports is usually fun to watch on its own: Enjoyment of a hockey game, for instance, rarely hinges on Pierre McGuire‘s inside-the-glass reports. Politics, on the other hand, is rarely overtly interesting. Which is why the Bloomberg Politics reports I enjoyed the most coming out of CPAC were the anthropological stories filed by John and Weigel, who is still emptying his notebooks from the event. The fact that those even exist reflect what is perhaps Bloomberg Politics’s greatest strength: Its first name.
Halperin told me Bloomberg Politics was designed to bridge Bloomberg Media, which includes properties like Bloomberg Businessweek and Bloomberg Television, with Bloomberg News, which is still a separate operation but with which Bloomberg Politics shares some resources. Bloomberg in January launched Bloomberg Business as a consumer-facing portal to its sprawling media entities. It plans to launch other verticals, including tech and luxury news. That lets a startup like Bloomberg Politics “amortize your costs by spreading them across all these different platforms,” Halperin said, including, of course, Bloomberg’s terminals.
That business, which places expensive data centers on the desks of financial decision-makers, still dwarfs Bloomberg’s media operations, which one news employee called a “rounding error in the scheme of things” after an existential episode when Bloomberg News backed off its reporting on China.
Terminal readers are an “incredibly important audience for us as a company,” Halperin said, “but also the people that use it are a wealthy and highly intelligent and engaged group.”
And here’s where CPAC becomes a useful lens through which to view Bloomberg Politics. Because the real action in the 2016 presidential race right now isn’t whether candidates wow the gathered grassroots in National Harbor but how and when they lock in support from wealthy donors and experienced staff. Coverage of such matters will usually appeal to a small, connected audience whose phone screens are currently being pursued by many media outlets. Bloomberg Politics’ great differentiator may not be the platforms on which it reaches news consumers but the benign neglect its ownership can offer its journalists while they look for new routes to cover politics in the US and new audiences that might want to follow the subject.
“The freedom is frankly almost intimidating,” Mattingly told me during a break. “When you come from a place where the assignments are set, your editors know what they want to see, the producers know what they want to see, with Bloomberg Politics now, if you’ve got a good idea, go do it.”