Too many journalists couldn’t seem to grasp their crucial role in American democracy. Almost pathologically, they normalized the abnormal and sensationalized mundane.
These days, we can clearly see the fallout from decades of declining public trust, the result, at least partly, of so many years of the press being undermined and of undermining itself. What is that fallout? Americans no longer share a common basis of reality. That’s dangerous because American democracy, government by the people, simply can’t function this way. It’s high time to ask how public trust in the press steadily plummeted from the years following the Watergate scandal and the publication of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s—when seven of ten Americans trusted the news—to today’s rock-bottom lows.
My parents were both readers, which should come as no surprise. Mom, a homemaker, consumed a steady stream of mysteries her entire life, as least the part of it that included me. Dad worked at night, but would set aside some reading time every day, particularly on his days off. He was not much of a book reader, though. His preferred material was the newspaper. Well, newspapers. There was a flood of them coming in, the New York Post (pre-Rupert), the Daily News, The Herald Tribune, The Mirror, the Telegram, the Times. Not saying that we had all of these coming in every day, but all were well represented. And if you wanted to see what he was reading, it was not hard to figure it out. Next to his living room easy chair there was always a stack. If it were books, today, we would call it a TBR. But the stack had a life of its own, and a sorting that was inexplicable. He must have read a fair bit as he kept the pile from overwhelming the room, hell, the entire apartment. I cannot say that I was a big news-reader as kid. More sports than anything. I wanted to keep up with the teams I cared about, the baseball Giants, the Yankees, and eventually the Mets.
Margaret Sullivan – image from PBS
I was very fortunate to have been raised in an environment in which reading the news, every day, was just a normal part of living. Even though my parents were not well-educated—Mom finished high school. Dad did not.—they valued staying informed. There was no talk at home about reporters slanting stories, although I am sure they did. The news was like the water supply, presumed to be potable, and universally consumed. But there was one exception. It was not until later in life that I began to read the news with a more critical eye, but even as a kid, I could see that sportswriter Dick Young was a mean-spirited son-of-a-bitch, flogging right-wing bile that had nothing to do with sports. I guess that was my first real exposure, consciously anyway, to journalistic political bias. Young was not a person who could be trusted, even though he held a very public position at a major New York newspaper. I doubt, if Dad were still with us, that he would accept what he’d be reading today as revealed truth. But back then, mostly, though, we took the news at face value.
Margaret Sullivan, a doyen of media self-reflection, has not been happy with the face value of American news reporting for quite some time. The news media, in her view (and in the view of anyone with a brain) is far too concerned with the horserace aspect of political competition, far more than they are with the actual policy substance that differentiates candidates and parties. One of the most respected journalists of her generation, having led a major regional newspaper, and having held two of the most widely read and respected writing posts in contemporary American journalism, she has had a ring-side view of this in action. She worked for thirty-two years at The Buffalo News, rising to be their top editor and a vice president. In 2012 she moved on to be the Public Editor at The New York Times, and in 2016 headed to The Washington Post as a media columnist in the high-powered Style section. She retired from that gig in August of 2022, and is currently teaching part time at Duke while working on a novel.
She won a Mirror award for her writing on Trump’s first impeachment, served on the Pulitzer Prize board, and was a director of the American Society of News Editors. She has also suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous sexism, as she worked her way through her share of glass ceilings. She knows a thing or two, because she has seen a thing or two. Newsroom Confidential is not just a personal memoir of her career in the newsroom, but a look at the changes that has taken place in journalism and in our view of journalism over her career.
It’s high time to ask how public trust in the press steadily plummeted from the years following the Watergate scandal and the publication of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s—when seven of ten Americans trusted the news—to today’s rock-bottom lows.
The high point may have been the inspirational impact of Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting on the Nixon administration’s corruption, Watergate most particularly. It was seeing that journalism was a way to impact the world, to improve it, that moved her to pursue a career in the news. We follow her through the career travails at The Buffalo News. She tells a bit about her full dedication to work conflicting with the demands of having a family, exacerbated by having to cope with the extra resistance of gender bias in her struggle to advance her career.
But while Buffalo may have occupied the bulk of her professional life, it does not occupy a proportional piece of the book. The real meat begins with her move to The New York Times. As Public Editor, her role was to be an outsider, looking critically as the work of Times reporters. Not exactly a recipe for making friends. Most editors were not particularly receptive to criticism, constructive or not. The sexism presented straight away, as a Times obituary about a very accomplished woman opened with a description of her cooking skills. Her job was not only to write about wrongs, but to offer recommendations for improvement. It would prove a Sisyphean task. She writes about her personal conflict in taking on a Public Editor investigation into a story written by a Times mentee of hers. While it may have been an important and high-profile position, it was a very tough job at times.
One thing I learned back in my twenties is that it is not only the content of articles that merits attention. Their placement is also significant, as is the heading given to those articles. These are often provided by an editor, not the reporter, and are often misleading. Sullivan writes about the most egregious example of the Times doing this, in its treatment of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign. The paper saw Clinton as a “pre-anointed” candidate, presuming that she would win. They wanted to be seen as tough, and were very defensive about being seen as too soft on Democrats.
The Times had certainly treated the FBI’s two investigations of the 2016 presidential candidates very differently. It shouted one from the rooftops, and on Trump and Russia the paper used its quiet inside voice, playing right into the Republican candidate’s hands. With a little more than a week to go before the election, the Times published a story with the headline “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” If anyone was concerned about Trump’s ties to Vladimir Putin, their fears might be put to rest by that soothing headline, though the story itself was considerably more nuanced. Even that reporting, not very damning for Trump, appeared on an inside page of the paper, a far cry from the emails coverage splashed all over the front page, day after day. We now know, of course, that Russia had set out to interfere with the election, and did so very effectively.
That sort of selective exposure was not exactly new. The Times had been aware, back when John Kerry was running against George W. Bush, of a domestic spying program. They sat on the story for thirteen months, finally posting the information when the reporter who dug up the story threatened to scoop them with his book. The potential impact was considerable, as revelation of the program during the campaign might have impacted the election result. One collateral result of this was that when a later major leaker of government secrets was looking for a trustworthy outlet, the Times was bypassed, because there was no confidence that the paper would publish the material. The Washington Post and The Guardian received the materials instead.
She writes about the transition of the news business from paper to digital, the decline in readership overall, and the national decline in news outlets, noting some who railed against the change, and others who saw the future early on and climbed on board.
Sullivan’s real reporting bête noire is excessive reliance on anonymous sourcing, aka access journalism. Sure, there are instances in which getting on-the-record quotes is impossible, or even dangerous. But the over-reliance on anonymity has resulted in reporters being played for fools, being fed self-serving tidbits, often intended to dishonestly manipulate public perceptions, often aimed at using reporters as ordnance in internecine political battles, and far too frequently serving no public good. The classic example of this was Judith Miller at the Times, reporting inaccurate intel given to her by members of the Bush Administration in order to build support for a war that was already being planned.
In the digital age another piece of this is a compulsion to generate clicks. This creates an incentive for reporters to sometimes hold on to maybe-less-exciting policy stories in favor of pieces that are likely to raise a reader’s temperature. The old trope If it bleeds it leads has been translated into the age of digital journalism as favoring heat over light.
It is not really breaking news why people’s trust in journalism has declined. The news was once considered a realm in which professionals investigated and reported stories with an eye toward what was considered newsworthy. But with the demise of the Fairness Doctrine regarding broadcast news, the gates were opened for full-time partisanship in the airwaves. The concentration of media ownership into the hands of fewer and fewer corporations has diluted, if not entirely removed, local news reporting. Now, many local stations broadcast what their distant owners tell them to, including the airing of political puff pieces for favored candidates and issues, and political hit pieces for those they oppose. With so many places in the nation reduced to a single newspaper or local news channel, local news has become more and more a mouthpiece of national corporate views. And a reduction in the availability of diverse perspectives.
The rise of the internet has had a huge impact on how we receive and perceive news. But a major reason, maybe the biggest, for a loss of faith in the media is the relentless assault on mainstream media by the right. Bias in the media is hardly new, but the unceasing emotionally-charged torrent of lies from right-wing media has raised dishonesty to a new, steroidal level. Every article that portrays Republicans or their supporters in a less than flattering light is attacked as evidence of some imaginary left-wing bias. One result of this relentless attack machine is that many outlets have become reluctant to report actual facts, lest they be attacked as biased. The Times, for example, took years to finally come around to describing Donald Trump’s blatant lies as just that. Can you fully trust a paper that is so weak-kneed about reporting the facts? Even regular Times readers must wonder. And, of course, those on the right now attack any media outlet that does not totally support the GOP party line. Even where no bias is present, many, if not all, on the right claim to see unfairness because they have been told thousands of times that such bias is always present. And the right is fond of using the threat of lawsuits to harass their targets. Trump is notorious for suing the objects of his ire, not expecting to win in court, but hoping to cost the sued large sums of money in legal fees, thus intimidating them, and, he hopes, deterring them from crossing him again. At least the Times has the resources to stand up to such bullying, but there are many media outlets that do not. Thus, MSM reporting slants away from truth.
Sullivan’s experiences writing for the Times and Post are fascinating, offering a view from inside the fishbowl, of the cultures, and some of the personalities, the battles that were fought against external attackers and the internecine conflicts that occur everywhere.
If Dad were around today, I expect he would approve of the many news subscriptions my wife and I share, the Times, the Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily Beast, our local paper, et al. Our stacks of unread material may not accumulate next to chairs in our living room, but reside instead in a black hole of unread materials and a digital TBR of things we intend to get to. We have come to view news reporting with critical eyes, sensitive to biases that creep into (or are on full display) the text of pieces, aware of how those pieces are presented, where, when, and why. The sort of trust in the news that was extant in the middle twentieth century is gone. But that does not mean that all trust has been lost. For those willing to do the work, it is possible to discern good from bad, both in publications and reporters. But it takes a lot more effort today than it ever did. We are aware, as our parents’ generation was less likely to be, of a reporter’s bent. As the world has forced us to look closer at all sorts of informational input (think ingredient lists on food packages), we have become more discriminating consumers of news. This reporter can be relied on. That one cannot. The fracturing of the news into a galaxy of providers has made it easier than ever to choose only the news that that fits preconceived perspectives. But it is not exactly a news-flash is that it remains possible to find quality reporting. It just takes a bit of digging.
As for Sullivan’s look back at her career and the shift in public perceptions, it is revelatory, informative, and engaging. If you know anything at all about Sullivan’s writing, this will not come as a shock. The bad news? The decline in public trust of media is very real, as is the reduction in local reporting. The good news? (I believe) people are becoming more aware of bias in supposedly neutral news media. Trust in journalism can be rebuilt, but it is clear that many outlets rely on readers/watchers accepting their reporting with uncritical eyes. After you read Newsroom Confidential you will have a greater sense of what the journalistic challenges are today, both for readers and producers of news. You will not be able to say That’s news to me.
Review posted – 11/18/22
Publication date – 10/18/22
I received an ARE of Newsroom Confidential from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair and balanced review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating an ePUB.
This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads
—–Time – Margaret Sullivan Can Only Indulge in So Much Nostalgia About Journalism – by Karl Vick
—–Vogue – Local Journalism Is Dying, and Margaret Sullivan Is Sounding the Alarm in Ghosting the News – by Michelle Ruiz – not for this book but a fascinating interview
—–The Problem with Jon Stewart– also from 2020 – also very good
—–PBS – Trump’s Showdown – Margaret Sullivanby Michael Kirk – from 2018 – good stuff
—–Apple News in Conversation – Something is Broken in American news. Can it be fixed? with Shumita Basu – Podcast
Items of Interest from the author
—– Sullivan pieces for the Washington Post –
—– Sullivan pieces for the New York Times
—–The Washington Post – If Trump Runs Again, Do Not Cover Him the Same Way: A Journalist’s Manifesto an adapted excerpt
—–Literary Hub – Veteran Reporter Margaret Sullivan’s Favorite Books About Journalism