MERCHANTS OF TRUTH: THE BUSINESS OF NEWS AND THE FIGHT FOR FACTS
By Jill Abramson
Simon & Schuster, 534 pages, $30
Jill Abramson brings a uniquely informed perspective to the question still obsessing the media world: What’s required for a news organization to survive in the face of a broken business model and the disruptive force of the internet?
In 2011, Abramson was the first woman ever tapped to serve as executive editor of The New York Times. Less than three years later, she achieved a more dubious distinction, becoming the first woman in that post to be fired. Abramson has implicated sexism in her departure, but she also cops to having a “gruff,” unpolished management style.
Since then, the scrappy, Harvard-educated Abramson has continued to write and to teach. Now, in “Merchants of Truth,” she has produced an important, if not entirely satisfying, work of explanatory journalism, modeled on David Halberstam’s 1979 classic, “The Powers That Be.”
Celebrating a high-water mark for American journalism, Halberstam’s book interwove the stories of four media behemoths: the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, CBS News and Time Inc. “Merchants of Truth” is that volume’s dark mirror, chronicling what Abramson calls the profession’s “Age of Anxiety.” It juxtaposes the struggles of two legacy organizations, The Washington Post and The New York Times, with those of the start-ups BuzzFeed and Vice Media.
In recent days, the book itself has become embroiled in controversy. Michael C. Moynihan, a correspondent for Vice News Tonight, and others have accused Abramson of both factual errors and plagiarism. “I made some errors in the way I credited sources,” Abramson told Brian Stelter on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.” But she said she would “never purposely take credit for the work of another journalist or writer.”
Abramson’s focus reflects her obvious desire to draw contrasts between the old and the new and use them to illuminate the way forward. But the players at first seem too disparate to reward such analysis. What lessons, after all, could two ambitious national newspapers draw from a website purpose-built for social media (BuzzFeed) and from a hipster magazine (Vice) that expanded into sensationalistic videos? (Disclosure: I’m a digital subscriber to both the Post and the Times, but before this assignment, I had never read either BuzzFeed or Vice. In other words, I’m a baby boomer, not a millennial.)
Abramson’s choice obliges her to neglect the most dramatic story of media decline: the fate of dozens of major metro dailies, as well as smaller papers, that have shrunk their staffs, slashed news holes, killed print editions and in some cases expired entirely. The survivors, including such former heavyweights as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe, remain under threat, with rich private owners and foundations offering the only respite from the accelerating death spiral.
What Abramson does find is surprising: a (limited) convergence of tactics and even sensibilities among the companies she profiles, as all of them try to define just how baldly to allow commercial imperatives to dictate editorial strategy.
As The Washington Post and The New York Times have beefed up their digital presence, invested in video production and sought to attract, and measure, new audiences, BuzzFeed and Vice have tried, with mixed success, to be taken seriously as news organizations. BuzzFeed garnered attention with its controversial decision to publish Christopher Steele’s unverified dossier on alleged links between the Trump campaign and Russian electoral interference. And Vice managed to capture damning (and much replayed) video footage of the white-supremacist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Abramson traces not just the manifold business blunders, but also more hopeful omens for the two floundering newspaper companies. For years, as they failed to grasp the enormity of the digital challenge, both had been cutting staff, though the Times’s editorial trims had been more restrained. When The Washington Post Co.’s longtime cash cow, the education company Kaplan Test Prep, took a hit, the Graham family, which owned the Post, was forced to look farther afield for salvation.
Then, fortune took a turn. The Post’s sale to billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the renewed dedication of both papers to investigative reporting in the age of Trump, and (not least) the successful institution of digital paywalls have helped boost circulation revenues, staving off disaster. Meanwhile, as BuzzFeed and Vice missed their revenue targets, their Wall Street valuations have tumbled. Since the book’s completion, both enterprises have announced significant layoffs.
Abramson is, as one would expect, a fine reporter with an eye for detail, and she has enjoyed significant access to her subjects, including “bad boy” Vice founder Shane Smith and BuzzFeed’s co-founder and CEO, Jonah Peretti. (Of the major players, only Bezos seems to have eluded her.) Her writing is precise but prone to clichés, chief among them what she repeatedly calls “the wall between church and state.” That jargon refers to the traditional (now increasingly breached) separation between editorial and business, one of the beachheads on which she herself fought.
Apart from some score-settling, Abramson has tried to be fair to each institution. But — let’s be frank — the score-settling, coupled with Abramson’s insider perspective, is one of the book’s enticements. “I cannot pretend to be objective about all of my experiences at the Times,” she admits.
Though Abramson and the Times’s current executive editor, Dean Baquet, were once friends and allies, she clearly hasn’t forgotten his role, as managing editor, in undercutting her. It was Baquet’s ultimatum to then publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., she suggests, that made her dismissal inevitable. (Baquet was angered when Abramson misled him about a key personnel decision, an action she says she took on the advice of the company’s CEO, Mark Thompson.) Smarting from criticism of her own leadership style, Abramson happily registers Baquet’s subsequent management stumbles, notably his intemperate email to a reporter after a critical column by the Times’s then public editor, Liz Spayd.
“Merchants of Truth” is hardly the last word on the still unfolding media crisis. But it belongs on the bookshelf of everyone who cares about the crisis’s causes and consequences.
Julia M. Klein is the Forward’s contributing book critic. Follow her on Twitter, @JuliaMKlein