An insider’s view on modern media disruption
Merchants of Truth: Inside the News Revolution
This is a Janus-faced book. Jill Abramson, the first woman to claim the top editorial job at the New York Times only to be fired two-and-half years later, looks back at journalism's golden age and forward to those seeking to rescue it from its current "Age of Anxiety". She paints from a palette with three main colours: Everlasting Hope, Deep Regret and Whiff of Incredulity.
Bill Keller, executive editor for The New York Times, centre, Dean Baquet, Washington bureau chief, right, and staff applaud Jill Abramson, a managing editor for the paper, left, in the paper’s newsroom in New York, 2011. Credit:Theresa Ambrose
Merchants of Truth isn't a full-scale obituary.
To leaven the bitter truths, there are rich details and high-end gossip – and, though not stated as such, a game for news junkies called 'what-if'?
Merchants of Truth: Inside the News Revolution by Jill Abramson.
What if Mark Zuckerberg had agreed to honour his handshake deal with the Graham family to sell 10 per cent of Facebook's stock to the Washington Post for $US6 million in 2005? (Well, the stake would now be in the tens of billions: problem solved!)
What if Warren Buffet, then the world's richest man, had bailed out the New York Times in the late 2000s rather than Mexican magnate Carlos Slim? (Buffet is known to love newspapers; he would have been a more benign benefactor.)
What if the investment in #MeToo reporting by the Post and NYT was driven by the need to attract more female readers? (Abramson says "financial motives" were not incidental to the campaign. Does that lessen its worth?)
And, what if the founder of Vice, Shane Smith, succeeds in his quest to "f— news in its naughty ass"? (Well, he hasn't managed it yet, but the revolution really is not over.)
If you demand more than a listicle, meme or error-strewn breaking news story to understand what's been going on these past two decades, this book will help you. But, at 430 pages and almost 70 pages of endnotes, be prepared to read deep and long.
Abramson resists the urge to pepper the text with explicit references to her own story. This is not a memoir, though it does a fair swag of memorialising. Rather, she charts the fortunes of four media companies; two new, and two, well, ancient: BuzzFeed, Vice, The Washington Post and the NYT.
In telling the story of the Times she gives herself permission – if it were needed – to tell us in unemotional prose the story of her own firing in 2014.
Ever the journalist, she outlines the facts leading up to her axing (lack of consultation, failure to make allies, poor person management) – and notes that others involved dispute her version. It is part mea culpa; part bad luck: "I was a less than stellar manager, but I also had been judged by an unfair double standard applied to many women leaders. Most of all, I became the first woman editor at a very bad time in journalism, when a failed business model was bringing into question almost every principle of journalism that I had learned during more than 30 years in the profession."
Her fall is captured in a section near the book's middle and it will resonate with most anyone who has been engaged in a media enterprise in recent years. As she writes, "I felt lonely and depressed at work. Everything was about saving or generating money."
Will it also resonate with female readers? It should. But the book's arrival has been clouded by negative and damaging responses: one, that she plagiarised the work of other reporters and made a series of factual errors, especially about Vice; secondly, that she lacks respect for contemporary female journalists.
On the former charge, much of the mud is sticking. She has denied plagiarism but admitted to sourcing errors and admits some of the sections "should have been cited as quotations in the text". She has promised to investigate them and correct them.
The latter charge is trickier. Abramson constantly praises female reporters in all four companies and is very conscious of gender issues (she was, after all, stiffed by the NYT on executive pay) but yes, her prose could be seen as out of sync with the (small-t) times. An example, again about Vice:
"Most of the on-air talent was very young and had scant experience; only three had ever reported on camera before. What they had was 'the look.' They were diverse: just about every race and ethnicity and straight, gay, queer, and gender non-conforming. They were impossibly hip, with interesting hair."
In executing Vice's brand of gonzo meets Jackass reporting, its reporters do tend to have great hair – and look amazing. But does it matter? Are they doing great yarns, telling untold stories? Often, yes.
It is here that Abramson's Janus posture proves unwieldy. The truth is the people at Buzzfeed and Vice aren't really her peeps. Although she name-checks several, and is generous about many stories, there is a palpable sense throughout the book that her journalism has been hijacked and not so much by young reporters with crazy hair and fluid sexuality, but by people who aren't journalists at all. Sniff.
She recounts the creation stories of Vice and Buzzfeed as if they were pulp fiction. Vice's Shane Smith is a booze and drug-fuelled misogynist. The culture of the company he founds reflects his value set. (Big surprise). Buzzfeed's founder Jonah Peretti is treated better, but her kindness is mixed with incredulity. He is a dyslexic kid, a savant who grows up to excel in Excel, swallow all things tech and instinctively know what makes content goes viral. He is the media leader Facebook would have created itself – if he did not already exist. He is also the media leader the NYT would never have made.
So, while the book promises the inside story of the news revolution it is really about how the news, initially with barely a journalist in sight, was punked by the likes of Vice, made viral by Buzzfeed and exploited by Facebook – while old guard grappled with the results.
That said, there is much to value in this book.
Each of the four companies get three chapters, charting their rise and fall, fall and rise. It is really three books in one. And there is a single chapter on Facebook, a vehicle for Abramson to vent about Trump's rise to power on the back of the social platform.
At its heart, Merchants of Truth is a chronicle and as such, its lessons are to be drawn and considered along the journey. There is no thunder clap at the end, no grand realisation. Rather, it ends and starts on wistful notes, in places where Abramson is in her element. It starts at a 2016 party at Washington's Newseum to toast the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer prize and ends with the 2017 retirement function for Arthur Sulzberger Jr, who Abramson credits for saving the NYT despite sacking her.
The great and the good of journalism gather at both and remind each other what their craft is for and what it can achieve. The wine, speeches and eyes are all sparkling. All that is missing is the Biblical exhortation: eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
Let's hope not.
Jill Abramson will appear at the Sydney Writers' Festival, on May 2. swf.org.au
Peter Fray is a professor of journalism practice, the co-director of the Centre for Media Transition at the University of Technology Sydney and the host of the Fourth Estate podcast. He is the former editor-in-chief and publisher of the the Sydney Morning Herald, editor of the Canberra Times and Sunday Age, and deputy editor of The Australian. He also started Australia's first stand alone fact-checking website, PolitiFact Australia.
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