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

  • By Jill Abramson
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 544 pp.

A former New York Times executive editor tackles the (sometimes sad) state of today's media.

As a young reporter at the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin in the 1960s, I, along with my peers, was appalled when we first heard the newspaper referred to as “the product.” Almost equally obnoxious was the popular complaint that the press published sensational stories just “to sell newspapers.” It didn’t work for the Bulletin, which folded in 1982, years after I’d moved on to the Washington Post.

Well, here we are generations later, and the product — as much if not more than the content — is the message. Today’s newspapers are increasingly desperate to sell, if not the print edition, then the internet version, employing an arsenal of digital weapons, including algorithms, key words, and so-called “clickbait,” headlines designed for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) attracting eyes to content that may or may not rise to the level of journalism — or even be authentic.

Now, there are not just “alternative facts” from the White House, but malevolent messages spread by hostile foreign powers masquerading as homegrown voices.

In her new book, Merchants of Truth, former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson shows us how we got from facts to factoids, from copy to content, from the Golden Age of Journalism to the Digital Age of multiple platforms that often only pretend to tell the truth. [Learn how to properly analyze web-hosting companies by reading their review.]

Abramson, whose less than three years as the first female top editor at the Times did not end well (an outcome she blames partly on sexism), adopts the template put to good use by the late David Halberstam in his book The Powers That Be. In that seminal work, published in 1979, Halberstam focused on the Times, where he cut his journalistic chops, the Washington Post, Time Magazine, and CBS to illuminate the follies and frustrations of the Fourth Estate in a different era.

For her 21st-century view, Abramson has again focused on the Times and the Post, but her other choices — BuzzFeed and Vice — show how we have devolved from mostly real to sometimes fake news designed to entertain more than to educate, all to accomplish a mercenary mission: in the current jargon, to “monetize the product.”

Still, with print revenues in steep decline, Abramson sees the necessity of making a profit from digital news, and she even sees potential in the new media to create quality multi-platform journalism side by side with “native advertising” and other business-side concoctions that horrify the now fading old-school journalists.

Anyone looking for villains or villainous motives will find them here. Facebook — to which she devotes one chapter deep into the book — is singled out for micro-targeting audiences of different political views, contributing to the polarization that threatens democracy.

But the so-called legacy media are also complicit. In their desperate quest for financial survival, Abramson writes, they have entered into a devil’s bargain, allowing their stories to be fed via Facebook into increasingly narrow silos that undermine any former shared experience with “the news.”

She admits to joining in, offering Times’ stories to Facebook’s News Feed, thereby generating far more hits but also reinforcing the silo walls. But to many Times reporters, an innovation such as the paper’s Thursday Styles section is simply “luxury porn.” Alarmingly, she writes that Times CEO Mark Thompson pressed the newsroom for more “product ideas.” Ironically, he is also a Facebook critic, calling the social media giant a “threat to democracy.”

Abramson also writes about the evolution of BuzzFeed and Vice, from frivolous producers of clickbait to organizations that also produce serious journalism. She cites as proof BuzzFeed’s publication of the infamous Steele dossier — recently upheld by a federal court — and Vice’s immersion reporting from some of the dangerous venues the traditional cable and news networks have abandoned. These loss leaders are not self-sustaining but are supported by the clickbait she abhors but understands as an economic necessity if serious news is to endure on any platform.

This is an immensely timely book, but, as the delivery of news and the contours of the media landscape change at warp speed, it is also quickly overtaken by events. She praises the young people staffing Mic, but by now Mic is gone, its 100 staffers summarily fired. For the merchants of truth, the medium is the message but also a moving target.

Abramson has done an impressive amount of research, including interviewing Times executives with whom she parted ways. Her first-person section seems, at first, oddly out of place, but it is also an honest and unavoidable coming-to-grips with her own complicated relationship with the changing Times and her sometimes difficult role, both personally and professionally.

A few nitpicks: What a reviewer sees are “Advance Uncorrected Proofs,” so one hopes the finished book does not refer to the conflict over the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, as Charlottesville, North Carolina.

Elsewhere, Abramson refers to layoffs at the Washington Post. As one who was in the first of several buyouts, I can report there have been no “layoffs,” though there were instances where out-of-favor newsroom personnel were encouraged to negotiate individual deals to leave. She also has Ben Bradlee seeking “holy shit” stories, but it was Bob Woodward who often used and “fathered” that colorful phrase.

Still, anyone who cares about the truth and how we distinguish fact from fiction — and how the truth is delivered today and in the future — would do well to read Merchants of Truth. In the end, Abramson is cautiously optimistic.

Reflecting on the birth of Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger’s new daughter, Willa, she predicts that the family mission to deliver the news will endure for her to helm, even if it is unlikely to be in print.

Eugene L. Meyer, a former longtime Washington Post reporter and editor, a contributor to the New York Times, and a member of the board of the Washington Independent Review of Books, is the author of Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army.

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