As an itinerant technology proselytizer during much of the nineties, I made frequent stops at Bloomberg TV. For a long while, it was easy to sit in front of the Bloomberg camera and feel that you were really at the center of the business-media explosion. There was tons of buzz about Bloomberg’s expansion from his Wall Street-centric financial-information business into real media: the cable and radio network, the news service, three magazines, a book company. As much as anyone, Bloomberg seemed to represent the information revolution – he understood that media was now about new platforms, repurposing strategies, great branding, global visions.
Certainly, there were no studios quite like Bloomberg studios. CNN in its cramped and dreary quarters on Eighth Avenue near Penn Station, CNBC out in Fort Lee, Fox News in the basement of News Corp., all smacked of hard times in the television business – whereas Bloomberg was something like Oz. In city after city (there are 82 Bloomberg bureaus worldwide, with some 1,200 reporters and editors), he built movie-set versions of television studios – spiral staircases, wraparound news tickers, and the fabled and spotlessly clean tropical-fish tanks, along with open kitchens, coffee bars, and a bounty of free food. (He was a new-media decorator before new media existed.)
The only thing is, nobody was really watching – actually, few could watch. While Bloomberg had constructed what appeared to be a nineties global-media juggernaut, he had never quite gotten his network, in any substantial fashion, onto the airwaves. Despite his legendary billions, he was, it seemed, unwilling to pay the price or to make the deals necessary for getting wide pickup by the nation’s cable systems. So, along with all the fanfare, what he created was a media enterprise (TV, radio, books, magazines) with revenues of well under $100 million – and probably no more than $30 million to $50 million – and a cable channel significantly smaller than CNNfn (which, in itself, is pretty small). It’s a minor business-news company in the guise of a powerful and visionary media empire. It is, in other words, an illusion.
Rich guys, of course, are always trying to buy themselves into the media business – and profitability is often the least of their concerns. They write their losses off against the stature they gain from owning a bully pulpit and having an audience. But Bloomberg appears to have more finely parsed his desire: Mogulhood was what he was after – having an audience was much less important. Certainly, Bloomberg’s illusion seems to have paid off – or created a reality. He’s become a much-vaunted media player: an information-age visionary, frequently interviewed by Charlie Rose (who broadcasts from the Bloomberg studios on Park Avenue), invited to speak on industry panels and to confer with his fellow moguls in Sun Valley (which would not have been the case if he were just a financial-data vendor).
What’s more, this model – pursuing a business without being terribly concerned about the conventional measures of the success of that business (which, of course, is very nineties) – seems to have suggested a blueprint for a political strategy.
Even though – and I have to believe this is obvious to anyone who has given it any thought – there is no turn of events at all, no leap of logic whatsoever, that could make Michael Bloomberg New York’s next mayor, it’s a campaign that he’s enacting very credibly, or at least it has the illusion of credibility. Again, the illusion is the thing. The fact of having first created the illusion of an important and powerful media enterprise is integral to maintaining the current illusion by getting the media, which deeply respects and fears media moguls (certainly more than it respects and fears politicians), to treat him very seriously – not at all like a pretender, or flake, or eccentric, or naked emperor. It’s illusion on top of illusion – it’s a personal Ponzi scheme.
Boredom, restlessness, the need-for-validation thing, the desire to be taken seriously, to be recognized and fawned over by people who don’t work for you, often bring men from unglamorous businesses into the media business and into politics.
Bloomberg’s business – his real business – is a deeply boring one. It’s an old-fashioned, single-function, almost idiot-savant-type business. Twenty years ago, he managed to monopolize data relating to the bond market. There’s no ticker for the bond market; there’s no SEC-like agency that files information about bonds. Bloomberg, with a vast database operation in Princeton, turned himself into a repository of prospectuses for the fixed-income marketplace. That’s his business – that’s why most of his nearly 160,000 clients lease his kludgy machines. The overwhelming share of his company’s $2.5 billion in annual revenue derives from the need for his bond data. That’s his advantage. It’s his annuity – and like most annuities, it’s on autopilot.
No doubt it’s a little stifling. The database business is the modern equivalent of an assembly line. What’s more, every other part of the financial-information business is a tough game – Bloomberg has tried to get a bigger piece but without much success. To substantially grow, he’d have to take on big debt or go public and buy some other big financial-information or media company – and risk, or at least complicate, his safe annuity. (Bloomberg is in the increasingly anomalous position of running a private company, unhampered by public accountability and fiduciary responsibility; certainly he wouldn’t be running for mayor if he had to run a public company.)
You get the sense when you talk to people in the company that it’s a two-tier enterprise. There are the people who actually process the data and sell the product, and then there are the people who tend to and market Bloomberg himself – his personal handlers and advisers, who are the company’s real powers (it’s worth noting that several of his longtime aides are veterans of the Koch administration).
Bloomberg, the man, conceived and packaged as a separate Bloomberg company product, came to market shortly after his marriage broke up in 1993. There’s an I’ll-show-her aspect to his sudden reinvention (she, apparently, left him). It started with a concerted effort to move into big-time philanthropies – from the Central Park Conservancy to Lincoln Center to the Metropolitan Museum – then involved a stagey social life (a date with Diana Ross) and the move into radio and television.
It was a rebranding program.
There’s an implicit sense that a recognizable Bloomberg with $2.5 billion in revenues is worth more than an unknown Bloomberg with that same $2.5 billion.
“Radio and television provide our company with instant visibility,” he writes excitedly in his book, Bloomberg by Bloomberg. “The media like nothing better than writing about themselves. The more exposure Bloomberg has to the Fourth Estate, the more they’ll promote us to the general public.”
He’s making a subtle and smart point. The media gets the attention of the media. It’s a B-to-B play. Getting the media to take you seriously is the campaign.
Bloomberg people are always speaking of this hustle – and of its great success. The Mike York Times, Bloomberg people call the paper, because of its reliable, respectful, and often lavish Bloomberg coverage.
On its merits, his candidacy, or at least its pie-in-the-sky quality, is closer to Abe Hirschfeld’s than to, say, Jon Corzine’s – but Bloomberg has gotten the mostly respectful Corzine treatment and easily avoided becoming a Hirschfeldish punch line. That’s already a big victory.
But why politics? He’s not personable enough (he may be among the least-charming people ever to have run for office), or charismatic or even interesting enough, or ideologically motivated enough (he was a Democrat; now, taking advantage of the easier field of play, he’s a Republican). Although he’s reportedly ready to spend $30 million, he may not even be rich enough to pay a Corzine-like price for buying a race (the overwhelming portion of his purported $4 or $5 billion fortune is tied up in his company and not liquid). Certainly, he isn’t politically talented enough and doesn’t seem particularly interested in learning how to be politically talented. And even if he were all of the above, he’d still need that fluke circumstance that allows a Republican to get elected in New York City – and there’s no reason to believe such a circumstance exists this year. What’s more, his résumé is fraught with the kinds of things – sexual-harassment suits, for instance – that don’t exactly help a fledgling politician.
He can’t get elected, so he must be running for another reason.
If publicity is the currency of our time, running for mayor should raise his personal value substantially (while in the past ten years he’s ascended from relative obscurity to business prominence, he is still, in the wider world, not very well known). And if you’re as uncharming as Bloomberg, running for office might actually make you seem more charming – ramp up your Q rating. What’s more, by going after the average voter he reaches his real constituency: reporters, celebrities, hostesses, titans of business, customers, possible dates. Running for mayor is an in-crowd play (“The social set in New York has discovered him,” Barbara Walters recently told the Times).
Sometimes selling yourself is easier than selling your business. A telling element of the Bloomberg pitch – I’m a good manager; therefore, I should run the city – is that the real forum for having your management skills voted on is in the public markets, which he’s avoided. Most companies the size of Bloomberg’s that don’t go public don’t because the process would reveal they’re not too profitable and not all that well managed, hence depressing their value. But Bloomberg, by running for mayor, a process with fewer disclosure requirements, can trumpet his management prowess – can go public with it – without having to prove it. We take his word that he’s good at business; in fact, we take his word that he’s worth billions.
That’s the illusion he’s marketing, and, even if we don’t vote for him, the one we’re buying. Bloomberg isn’t running to be mayor; he’s running to be some different, enhanced, illusory version of Michael Bloomberg. This is perhaps not so much a fraud as a quest – an ego in search of something, an ego trying to express itself.
We don’t have to worry about Michael Bloomberg becoming mayor.
That’s not to say, however, that we don’t have to worry about Michael Bloomberg.