Books

Jill Abramson and the Church of Facts

The former New York Times executive editor strives for objectivity in her chronicle of the modern news business. She should have told her story instead.

Staffers crowded in the New York Times newsroom as Pulitzer Prize winners are announced. Abramson looks up, clapping. Arthur Sulzberger Jr. holds up four fingers to signify four wins.
Executive Editor Jill Abramson, right, on the day in 2013 the New York Times won four Pulitzer Prizes.
Reuters/Ruth Fremson/Pool

When Jill Abramson, the first and only woman to hold the position of executive editor of the New York Times, was fired from that job in 2014, a young woman wrote to the Times’ storied media columnist, David Carr, to ask him for his thoughts on the affair. Abramson, telling this story in her new book, Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts, admits that she was “less than a stellar manager.” Specifically, she writes, “I was seen as playing favorites and as being overconfident of my opinions. I had a bad habit of cutting people off and didn’t listen enough. In short, I was seen as ‘pushy.’ ” But she suspects the same qualities would have been viewed as far less objectionable—perhaps even admirable—in a man. Carr, who died in 2015, told his young friend that Abramson’s firing was not a shining moment for the Times, an institution he prized. “All the editors of the paper become monsters,” he explained, “and she was an incredibly effective one. A great, forgive me, newsman.”

To judge by Merchants of Truth, Carr was right. That is not to say that Abramson, who currently writes a column for the Guardian and lectures at Harvard, retains the monstrousness that comes with occupying the top editor’s position at the paper of record. But the old-fashioned, hard-boiled patina of “newsman” seems to fit Abramson. What’s good about Merchants of Truth, which follows the fortunes of four news organizations through the hair-raising first two decades of the 21st century, is also its weakness: Abramson’s adherence to a mid-20th-century standard of reportorial objectivity. There are countless occasions when that is exactly the approach called for from a writer. This book wasn’t one of them.

Although the accuracy of Abramson’s reporting in this extensively footnoted book has been contested by some of her subjects, she clearly cares about the facts. But it’s ludicrous for her to pretend that she can tell this story in large part without bias. It’s also a missed opportunity. Abramson’s subjective experience as a major player in the story, her beliefs and values facing ceaseless challenges as the business model for daily newspaper journalism collapsed, is fascinating. However, the “newsman” in her dictates that she push that perspective to the margins. The result is a not-quite-convincing piece of feature journalism haunted by the ghost of the memoir it should have been.

The four news organizations Abramson follows in Merchants of Truth are the Times, the Washington Post, BuzzFeed, and Vice. The first two newspapers enjoy towering reputations but faced cratering revenues with the advent of the internet. The latter two companies began, respectively, as a hugely successful experiment in using the internet to engineer viral content and as a lad magazine dedicated to articles with titles like “80s Coke Sluts,” street fashion, and gonzo tales of adventure and drug use. In 2012 BuzzFeed’s founder, Jonah Peretti, launched an ambitious foray into the news business, hiring hundreds of reporters and editors who produced impressive investigative pieces that earned Pulitzer Prize nominations. BuzzFeed News also attracted attention by rushing to publish stories that more established publications regarded as insufficiently sourced, such as the contents of the Steele dossier, a collection of opposition research regarding Donald Trump’s connections to the Russian government. Vice leapt early into video production, creating a nightly news program for HBO and such documentaries as Elle Reeve’s “Charlottesville: Race and Terror,” a riveting, boots-on-the-ground report on the 2017 white nationalist rally in Virginia.

Complaints about Abramson’s reporting in Merchants of Truth have come from some of Vice News Tonight’s correspondents and were based on errors in the book’s uncorrected proofs, a provisional version of the text supplied to reviewers in advance of its publication. Some of the errors have been corrected in the finished version of Merchants of Truth, though other contested points remain unchanged. Also irksome to many Vice News Tonight journalists is what they perceive as Abramson’s dismissive attitude toward their achievements and talents, epitomized in her description of them as “impossibly hip, with interesting hair,” and an exaggeration of their lack of conventional journalism experience. As a casual viewer of Vice News Tonight, I can appreciate their annoyance; the news program’s correspondents look like perfectly ordinary young people to me—and some of them not even that young. But it’s far more illuminating to consider this dispute in the context of longstanding generational frictions in the profession.

As Abramson recounts, in the early 2000s, many prestigious news organizations from the pre-internet era were slow to adapt to the new medium; she counts among her achievements at the Times her integration of the print and web newsrooms, which had previously been segregated. The Post’s digital team had long been relegated to an entirely different building, in Virginia; one source told Abramson that old-timers at the paper treated her “like I wasn’t a real journalist anymore” when she migrated from print to digital. At the same time, it had become clear that readers increasingly preferred to get their news online. Print advertising commanded much higher rates than its online equivalent, but the demand for it was evaporating.

Young journalists navigating an unstable, constantly mutating career landscape at this time found most of their job opportunities on the internet. They justly resented being looked down on by older reporters who had lodged themselves in cushy sinecures at legacy publications in a time when newspapers had money to spend on investigative and other “real” journalism. But at the same time, editors like Abramson were being confronted with demands for change from publishers and the business side of their organizations. Furthermore, investors looking to get a piece of the next big tech trend were eager to pour money into operations like BuzzFeed, with its elaborate data on reader behavior and its sophisticated social media strategy.

If younger journalists like the ones at BuzzFeed and Vice felt dissed by the old guard’s wariness and outright disdain, established journalists like Abramson were constantly being told that they needed to toss out their years of experience—and, in their view, the ethical scruples that had defined their work—and submit to the new digital order. They were stodgy, obsolete, and worst of all “didn’t understand the internet”—a phrase that younger colleagues and self-appointed experts on the new(ish) medium relished using as a bludgeon. Abramson’s near-obsessive use of the words hip and cool throughout Merchants of Truth betrays the sting of these criticisms. As she saw it, she was upholding a standard of journalism that had elevated her profession into vital champions of truth and democracy. She believed that the New York Times, despite its occasion lapses (acknowledged in Merchants of Truth), embodied the very best of this tradition. She had the newspaper’s logo tattooed between her shoulder blades, and even after she left the Times, it remained, she writes, her “religion.”

From Abramson’s perspective, the past two decades have seen an erosion of journalistic integrity spearheaded by outfits like BuzzFeed and Vice. At the Times, she resisted attempts to thin the wall between editorial and advertising, from refusing to sell access to Times reporters (via paid conferences and “salons”) to blocking the incursion of “native advertising,” or sponsored content made to look like editorial material. These moneymaking projects became harder and harder to resist because organizations like BuzzFeed and Vice were happy to provide them while operating with a lower overhead. Vice in particular was notorious for underpaying its young staff, who were nevertheless as hungry to work there as advertisers were eager to purchase an association with the magazine’s “authentic” and “renegade” style. It’s easy to make fun of Abramson’s rather clueless fixation on the cool and the hip, but it’s also disingenuous to pretend that those qualities aren’t prized commodities among journalists and the people who pay for their work.

All these high-minded arguments on behalf of integrity or innovation came subtly mixed with a good amount of self-interest. The pool of decent jobs grew smaller every month. The young blood wanted to clear the old guard out of the way to make room for digital natives and social media savants, just like … themselves. The old guard like Abramson felt they’d earned their positions and they had the laurels to prove it. (Of course, some of those giving out the laurels, in the form of journalism prizes, wouldn’t even consider digital work.)

Merchants of Truth would feel more coherent if it recounted how it felt to be leading the Times during these convulsions. Abramson is proud of achieving a 50-50 gender split in the newspaper’s masthead during her tenure and of promoting more journalists of color, even “though there was not enough racial diversity at the Times or any other newsroom.” But a more immediate account of the emergence of companies like BuzzFeed and Vice, and Abramson’s own reactions to them at the time—the shifting (or not) of her position on the editorial/business divide, her growing recognition of the impact internet business models were having on print newspapers, her fears for what might result from those changes—would be far more interesting that what she opts to provide instead. The chapters on Vice and BuzzFeed are fly-on-the-wall narratives from which Abramson’s own point of view has been ostensibly erased. The frat boy antics of Vice’s party animal founder Shane Smith and the inanity of BuzzFeed’s bread-and-butter content all get described in a measured, neutral manner as if by someone with no skin in the game at all.

It’s surely because of Abramson’s judgments leaking through this stance of placid detachment that some early readers of the book who work, say, at Vice News Tonight have found her depiction of them so irritating. It is this air of Olympian authority, commonplace in “Timesmen,” that fans the fury of the newspaper’s critics. Secure in their conviction that they stand at the pinnacle and the center of American journalism, Times journalists often seem to inhabit a bubble visible to everyone but themselves. Many of them have followed well-worn paths through Ivy League colleges and journalism departments to reach their perches at the paper of record. This can lead to an unimaginative, inflexible credentialism. Abramson seems genuinely surprised when a crackerjack reporter emerges from any other background, marveling that Vice’s Reeve is a southerner who once worked in a Dell computer factory and merely graduated from the University of Missouri. In trying to sound impartial, Abramson sometimes comes across as attempting to pass off her own prejudices as fact, another accusation often lobbed at the newspaper. If any of her conversations with the people at BuzzFeed or Vice ever made Abramson stop, think, and reconsider her received perceptions of her profession or herself, she never lets on.

As mutually annoying as older establishment journalists and young digital reporters find each other, however, their clashes seem more distracting than substantial. After all, while they’ve been quarreling, Google and Facebook have been stealing their lunch, reaping advertising dollars by serving up the news organizations’ content while gathering data on readers that provides advertisers with ever more targeted marketing tools. It may have been delusional for Abramson to cling to the model of an editorial department hermetically sealed off from the business side during the 2010s, but she wasn’t wrong to want it. Isn’t that really what most of us, readers and journalists, would prefer? The ultimate point of Merchants of Truth seems to be the waspish but not invalid observation that outlets like BuzzFeed and Vice boasted of being faithful to and representative of their youthful audiences, yet would sell out themselves, their writers, and their readers to any corporation waving a check. In Abramson’s eyes, they dragged down with them such storied institutions as the Times and the Washington Post.

On the eve of the publication of Merchants of Truth, BuzzFeed announced that it was laying off dozens of reporters and editors, decimating its news department. If even the great digital hope of journalism—hard-hitting reporting supported by cat videos, personality quizzes, and native ads—can’t make the numbers add up, is there any hope left for an independent Fourth Estate? In a way, the most puzzling aspect of Merchants of Truth isn’t the errors Abramson made and then did or didn’t correct: It’s the narrowness of the book’s purview. Now and then Abramson mentions ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism, but why wasn’t this model, whatever its drawbacks and advantages might be, fully included in the future of journalism envisioned in Merchants of Truth? Perhaps it’s not cool or hip enough. Or maybe it’s just that Abramson hasn’t got a score to settle with it.