February 21, 2003

Bloomberg Organization Drops NYU Funding in Retaliation for Remark

Because of comments by NYU professor of Media Ecology Mark Crispin Miller, Bloomberg, the business news organization, is pulling its support from NYU's journalism school. It's a rather strange way to retaliate for a remark made by a professor in another department of a huge university.

I wrote to editor in chief Matthew Winkler (see below) about what I thought should be an embarrassment to his organization and he said in his reply that Bloomberg had not withdrawn funding, it had merely not continued funding. I wrote back and asked whether the not-withdrawn-but-discontinued funding was related to a statement by a professor. He wrote back and said Bloomberg had asked NYU for a letter saying that the university did not necessarily share Miller's view, and the University declined, "so we declined to offer the funding." Very strange reasoning.

It looks as though the news organization cannot tolerate a difference in point of view. To ask a university to prepare such a disclaimer is ridiculous. Of course the university "does not necessarily" share Miller's view. That's the nature of a university. The thought that a university would not encourage diversity of opinion is reminiscent of Nazi Germany.

To tie an endowment for the school of journalism to a disclaimer of an opinion given by a professor in an interview to the New York Observer is a very petty way to retaliate against what was perceived as an insult to Mayor Bloomberg. There are many lines being crossed here. To use an endowment as a club for bullying cheapens the gift and NYU was right to refuse it. To use the economic power of the Bloomberg organization to avenge an insult to the mayor, who is allegedly disconnected from the operation to avoid conflict of interest during his term as mayor, is messy indeed. (See Newsday for the story. See also New York Times and theanticmuse.blogspot.com)

(I am including my e-mail exchange with Matthew Winkler below.)

February 22, 2003

Dialogue with Bloomberg's Winkler

[Below is a raw e-mail exchange set off when I sent a message to Matthew Winkler, editor in chief of the Bloomberg business publication in response to the article named above. It was a civil exchange. I took pains to introduce the dialogue in a respectful and civil manner. Winkler responded in kind, which was gratifying. I don't find pissing contests very useful.]

Dear Mr. Winkler,

With all due respect, sir, I was embarrassed for you when I read in Newsday that you had pulled a fellowship from NYU because of a comment made by a professor of that institution.

Perhaps what I read was not accurate, but it sounded as though you were so upset by comments of a professor of the media ecology department that you lashed out in a way that will harm students of the journalism school, who have no connection that I can see to the professor who heads the media ecology department.

In fact, the greatest harm from your action seems to be your own reputation and that of the Bloomberg organization because it sounds like you are so easily ruffled by a comment that you lose all sense of proportion and just lash out blindly. I think you are worthy of a much more dignified response. Why should those comments upset you so? If you take issue with the comments, why not address the issues directly instead of striking out at people who have nothing to do with them?

Your commitment to support journalism at a fine institution like New York University should stand high above such petty concerns.

David Cogswell Hoboken, NJ

It wasn't accurate. I never talked to the reporter. We have NYU interns and will continue to. We didn't withdraw any funding. We were asked for more money and declined. Be careful how you judge and on what basis. Regards. MW

Not withdrawn, just not continued.

On what basis was it discontinued? Was it related to the incident or not?

Declining to comment only bolsters the impression that you cannot tolerate opposing points of view in an open discussion.

David Cogswell

An NYU professor assailed Goldstein and Bloomberg. When NYU asked us to renew a program, I said `sure,' provided NYU could send a letter to the editor of the publication noting that NYU didn't necessarily share the opinion of the professor as much as it considered it his right to speak freely. NYU declined. So we declined to provide new money. We still hire NYU graduates.And we will continue to do so. Thanks for your interest. Beware of a story that doesn't have the specific anecdotes confirmed etc.

Dear Mr. Winkler,

I do very much appreciate your taking the time to address my questions. I am -- as you suggest -- wary of any story. And I was not standing in judgment, I was giving you the benefit of the doubt and asking. I respect you, your publication, your founder and your right to support or not support whomever you choose.

I must say, however, when I hear your own version of the story it doesn't sound that much better in terms of the essential issues. I feel it was bad judgment to tie your worthy program of support to any comment by a single professor at NYU.

I can't imagine how you expected the institution to respond to a letter like that. It seems an unnecessary provocation. Of course they don't all share the same opinion. I suppose they found it demeaning to be asked to state that on paper. Differences of opinion of professors at a university are inherent in the tradition of the university. I can't see how your support of a fine institution like NYU should be tied in any way to any professor's opinion, no matter how offensive it may be to you. To me your action flies in the face of the freedom of speech we have traditionally valued so much in this country. And it comes at a time when that freedom is increasingly under attack, so it is especially sensitive.

We should all value the diversity of opinion that is cultivated in the university environment. It's one of the best things we have as a society, and at the core of why the US is admired and emulated around the world. It would have been much more becoming, no matter how insulted you may have been by the comments of the professor, to rise above that when it came to your support of the institution of learning. I just don't see the connection. Now you have drawn attention to the negative comment and rejuvenated it when you could have shrugged it off and let it disappear.

David Cogswell

Thanks for your opinion. You still miss the point. Bloomberg has sponsored programs at Columbia, Baruch, Medill, Berkeley, University of Missouri and if you or anyone were to ask the people at these schools about our relationship -- its just evidence -- you would perhaps hold a different conclusion. As to NYU, We didn't draw attention to it. We let the comment go. When NYU subsequently asked us if we wanted to give it more money, we declined. We didn't have to provide an answer. NYU asked why. We said we didn't think it was appropriate for an NYU professor, identified as NYU, to disparage Tom Goldstein, Dean of Columbia's journalism school, in print when Mr. Miller wasn't familiar with Bloomberg News and, incidently, because Mr. Miller had a conflict of interest in that he was turned down for a position at Columbia, an institution he was disparaging. We didn't find the behavior appropriate and we were uncomfortable providing funds under those circumstances. The issue isn't so much about someone criticizing us -- even if it is a bit unseemly for a university to be on record criticizing something done by an official at a rival school with the company the university is asking for funds. It's about the way one professor from one institution commented about another and we didn't want to be associated with that behavior. We still don't. It has nothing to do with free speech. It has everything to do with conduct we find unbecoming. It is a free country. We believe in a free press. There are lots of schools that want money and we can't accomodate all of them. We try to do the best we can in a way that is consistent with our own standard of behavior. As I said, we had no intention of making this an issue. We wish no one harm. The Newsday article was inaccurate in that it failed to present any of the points I've made to you. Again, thanks for your interest. Regards. M

Dear Mr. Winkler,

Sorry to bother you with one more reply.

I must say again how much I appreciate your addressing my questions in a civil and earnest manner. It's certainly beyond the call of duty.

I don't think I missed your point. I just hold a different view. From what you told me it was you who tied the financial support to a comment by a single NYU professor. To me that is the error. It's a an error in logical typing that becomes a PR problem. They are just different things and should not be mixed.

I think your decision to support or not support NYU should be based on its value as an institution only. An offensive comment by a single professor is irrelevant to that relationship. I think it was proper for NYU to decline to provide you with a disclaimer, even though it is obviously true without saying that Miller was not speaking in an official capacity for anyone but himself.

In times past I would also be more inclined to say, "Freedom of speech is only an issue when it concerns government conduct; it does not apply to the private sector." But the government and the private sector have blended so much it has become hard to draw the line. I don't think even many pragmatic Republicans would deny in private that corporate donations rule Washington. The democratic element is more or less gone from our governance. But the accountability that remains is through the consumer element. Public relations is an important concern of any business.

Though I'm sure your organization sincerely supports education in journalism, there is certainly a public relations purpose to your donations. By letting a comment by a professor sully your relationship with an entire university, you have cost yourself more than you gained in public relations value.

People say, "If you have a problem with corporate globalization, don't break windows of the local Starbucks; channel your complaint through the proper channels." I would say here, if you had a problem with Miller's comment, the appropriate response would be to write a letter to the editor of the Observer, or somehow challenge Miller on his statement in a public forum. That addresses the problem itself: to address whatever damage you feel the offensive remark caused by being aired publicly.

There are a number of things being mixed in volatile combinations in this sphere of activity. For Bloomberg the company to retaliate against an insult to Bloomberg the mayor is a bit of a problem when the mayor properly separated himself from the company to avoid any appearance conflict of interest while he was mayor. Your retaliatory action seems to indicate that you are operating in his behalf in regard to an incident that concerned his duties as mayor. I'm not saying the mayor's divestiture was not genuine, I'm just talking about the importance of these appearances.

This also comes after a weekend when the city took a position against the right of citizens to assemble for a redress of grievances regarding the war. I don't believe it is the city's place to take a position on Bush's war plans and to go so far as to try to inhibit people's right to express their opposition. The right to assemble should not be infringed upon no matter the issue, but in this case it is especially egregious because New Yorkers are on the front lines of any reprisals that will come from a US pre-emptive war. While Bush and Cheney are in their bunkers and their compounds, New Yorkers will be once again slaughtered because they have nowhere to hide.

I know this is a very different set of issues, and a nasty can of worms to introduce to this dialogue, but Michael Bloomberg has put himself on the line as a public servant and his actions fall under a different set of standards now. When you fail to keep these spheres of activity separate, you open yourself to all kinds of problems.

Once again, thanks for taking the time to address my concerns. I know you don't want this to go on forever, so I'll let you go now and get back to your real job.

In good will,

David Cogswell

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