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Review | 'Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts'

The sad, inspiring state of modern news

Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts
Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts

Jill Abramson owes two debts to David Halberstam and “The Powers That Be,” the late writer’s epic 1979 examination of four powerful news companies. The first is her career. Reading it inspired her to become a journalist, a path that led to the executive editorship of the New York Times. Three years into that post, Abramson was fired, and Halberstam’s book inspired her anew. Surveying a battlefield on which she had become a casualty, she saw a contested future for quality news. What Halberstam had done for a Golden Age in media, Abramson wanted to do for journalism’s Age of Anxiety.

Following the Halberstam template, Abramson studies the fortunes of four companies struggling, as she puts it, “to keep honest news alive.” Her book, “Merchants of Truth,” is a reported meditation on journalism’s last decade, told through the experiences of BuzzFeed, the New York Times, Vice and The Washington Post. Like Halberstam’s chosen four (Time, The Post, CBS and the Los Angeles Times), Abramson saw at each news organization good and important work. “And all four are endangered,” she asserts.

Although journalism about journalism is abundant, Abramson’s book represents a distinctly ambitious effort to synthesize a period of dramatic upheaval and help us understand how key industry actors - and a supporting cast ranging from President Trump to the man who wrote the code for Google News - have shaped our information diet. Picture a room where the Graham and Sulzberger families confer alongside the drugging, drinking, “feral” founders of the lad mag that would become Vice, all of them making their claims about the future of news, and you’ve got an idea of the assignment Abramson set for herself.

Establishment and insurgent media take off from opposite ends of the same runway, each faltering when they reach the other’s altitude. Legacy newsrooms are tragically slow to understand the internet and the turbulence coming their way, then clumsy and arrogant in integrating the innovations catapulting their young competitors. New-media organizations are portrayed as creative but opportunistic players, building newsrooms to burnish their reputations or fortify new advertising strategies, then tripping over fundamentals, some of them ethical.

On one level, Abramson’s book is a love letter to journalism. Its most admired characters are the reporters whose heroics she weaves throughout engrossing, sometimes gossipy profiles of the four companies, women and men working at the top of their game. Meet Elle Reeve, the former computer factory worker who powers Vice’s viral video report on the deadly Charlottesville protests, a story of “moral clarity.” The Post’s David Fahrenthold is the investigative reporter whose relentless digging (“like a bloodhound”) into candidate Trump’s charity wins a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. Michael Barbaro is the “Platonic ideal of the new Timesman” - political reporter, podcaster and elegant writer recrafting a historic election night story when the “Madam President” headline is cratered by Trump’s victory. Craig Silverman’s dogged reporting distinguishes BuzzFeed as “the media’s foremost expert on the subject of fake news, consistently beating other outlets to the punch.”

But these valentines appear alongside Abramson’s unflinching assessments of executives’ miscalculations. Her description of The Post in the period before its sale to Jeff Bezos is a bleak account of a management team struggling to reset in the new news economy. A long-awaited strategy memo, “The Road Forward,” is rolled out at a staff meeting and bombs. “While the memo’s title was meant to sound visionary and reassuring, an actual road map was entirely missing,” Abramson writes.

While digital start-ups deepened their reporting and galloped ahead of their legacy competitors on audience development, Abramson also sees them stumble in establishing norms of journalistic conduct. When BuzzFeed, a brilliant virality machine, first adds news, it’s “an experiment in the viability of an operation begun without regard for journalistic ethics (attribution, accountability, etc.) that had gotten a journalistic organ grafted onto it.” Abramson cites BuzzFeed’s secretive deletion of more than 4,000 posts, plagiarism included, “a redaction of unprecedented scale.” Four months after ratifying a code of ethics that would prohibit such actions, Ben Smith, the website’s talented young editor, erased three posts from the site that were critical of corporate brands. “The problem wasn’t the veracity of the posts, it was that they offended advertisers,” she writes. “When Smith realized he’d been caught he reinstated the posts and offered a sheepish apology over email. ‘I reacted impulsively,’ he admitted, ‘and I was wrong.’”

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Abramson was researching her book as stories broke in the Daily Beast and the Times about rampant sexual harassment at Vice, but her account is in many ways the richest. Her years writing and editing long-form investigative journalism are on display as she profiles Shane Smith and the “bro-hood” that built a $6 billion company that touched the holy grail - making money from streaming video to young audiences - while audaciously upending workplace conventions, including prohibitions against supervisors sleeping with their staffers. In one heartbreaking account, a young producer is told to stay away from a Columbia University award ceremony honoring one of her stories; her boss, with whom she had an affair, will be bringing his wife.

Although Abramson acknowledges the steep decline of local news, she does so as an afterthought. The book travels along the Acela corridor, with occasional trips to the West Coast, and no investigation of how the same forces roiling New York and Washington are shuttering local news shops. In her final chapter, she quotes a journalist from Minnesota who is “outraged that the bleeding of local news wasn’t garnering more attention,” an ironic note given that it receives no more attention here. That was not the book Abramson set out to write, fair enough. But it does expose a costly limit she imposed in mimicking Halberstam, whose book documented a less fractured, pre-internet age. The nation’s shriveling local news report is an industry crisis, and I missed Abramson’s reporting applied to that story.

Several subjects of “Merchants of Truth” have alleged inaccuracies in the galleys, some of which have been corrected in the final printing. Abramson was asked about this in a New Yorker interview, and she said that the book was fact-checked but that there “wasn’t time” to call back everyone she interviewed.

Other early reports on the book have focused narrowly on Abramson’s criticisms of political journalism at her alma mater, and there are several. She describes the post-election news pages of the Times and The Post as “unmistakably anti-Trump,” asserting that the Times benefited from an “implicit financial reward” by catering to its liberal audience, an assessment at odds with her criticisms of the paper’s aggressive reporting on Hillary Clinton’s emails. She also frets about an emerging generational divide in the newsroom eroding the paper’s guidelines for fairness. “The more ‘woke’ staff thought that urgent times called for urgent measures; the dangers of Trump’s presidency obviated the old standards,” she writes. But these cautions are offered alongside her view that renewed competition between the Times and The Post has made both papers stronger.

“The Post was back,” she writes of journalism reinvigorated by new owner Bezos and editor Martin Baron. About the Times under her successor Dean Baquet, she concludes, “The news report as a whole had never been stronger.”

Abramson’s deeper concerns regard the accelerated collaboration between journalists and business staff and the lucrative blurring of news with advertising (concerns announced by the pairing of “merchants” and “truth” in her title). She rips “native ads” as the industry’s “new digital Frankenstein” - corporate marketing so closely resembling news stories that it may deceive readers. Incubated at shops like BuzzFeed and Vice, the financially seductive campaigns are now part of the advertising menu at legacy publications, an export Abramson laments as “chinks carved in the wall” that has traditionally separated news from commerce.

These views inform Abramson’s candid self-portrait, that of an editor who struggled to stitch one era to the next, eager to benefit from the innovations offered by the digital age but cynical about anything that resembled an incursion into historic news values. It was a complicated moment for editors trying to steer their newsrooms across the shallows. Longevity required new kinds of collaborations not common during most of her career, and Abramson had a hard time forming them. When the internal “Times Innovation Report” was leaked to BuzzFeed - new media breaking one of the biggest legacy media stories of the year - it described a gifted but ossified newsroom that often rejected digital initiatives as “un-Timesian.”

Abramson reflects on this turbulent period with anguish. “I didn’t think technological change should sweep in moral change. I fought back. Perhaps my principles were too rigid; perhaps to save the Times the old strictures needed to be relaxed.”

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Her account of losing her job reads as a small memoir within the book, a melancholic reconstruction of an event that drew widespread coverage in 2014. Writing in these pages at the time, journalist Amanda Bennett observed that Abramson’s firing hit women “like a lightning strike to dry tinder.” I suspect that this book, which provides Abramson’s first full depiction of the period, will reignite that conversation. She openly describes feeling lonely and depressed at work and alienated from other senior executives. She is critical of her miscalculations, even as she’s angered by evidence that her pay lagged that of her male predecessor, a claim the Times disputes.

In one agonizing scene, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who had promoted her into the job, delivers a written evaluation to her office and remains while Abramson reads it. “In shockingly personal terms, the letter described my moodiness and statements from my closest colleagues that I was a difficult manager,” recounts Abramson. “It said nothing about the substance or quality of my work. If I had to boil it down to one sentence it would be ‘People think you’re a bitch.’”

In four months, she was gone. “I was a less than stellar manager,” she concedes four years later, “but I also had been judged by an unfair double standard applied to many women leaders.”

She adds, “In the end, all the journalists who are my contemporaries were transitional figures playing blind man’s bluff.” The powers that were.

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