Controversial Book Looks at "Truth" in Today's Journalism

The New York Times newsroom in 1942, when print newspapers ruled the information age. Not to mention all those white men at their desks. My how things have changed...
The New York Times newsroom in 1942, when print newspapers ruled the information age. Not to mention all those white men at their desks. My how things have changed... U.S. Library of Congress/Majory Collins-Wiki Commons
Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts
By Jill Abramson
544 pp.
Simon & Schuster

You’d be hard pressed to name an industry that the Digital Age has affected more – both positively and negatively – than journalism. Though the days of people getting the bulk of their information via a tossed collection of newsprint on their front lawns or from a white, middle-aged “Voice of God” male anchor on one of a handful of channels had already crumbled long before the introduction of the iPhone, things are still changing more rapidly than the identity of a Kardashian’s latest boyfriend.

Here, former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson takes on the monumental task of both documenting and making sense of the news business in 2019 and the prior decade. She does this by following the ups and downs (in neatly divided chapters) of four news companies with widely varying practices and their very distinct respective leaders. 

Book cover by Simon & Schuster
That would be website Buzzfeed and magazine/television show VICE (representing new media) and the venerable newspapers The Washington Post and The New York Times (representing "legacy" - i.e. "old" media). Though it should be noted that Abramson was fired from the latter in 2014, so her chapters on the Old Grey Lady do have the subjectivity and first-hand knowledge that the others do not. And there is some score-settling here.

The Merchants of Truth covers so much ground; it’s a bit dizzying at times. How Buzzfeed has used aggregate (i.e. repurposed) content from other sources and original reporting along with quizzes (“What Muppet Are You?”), celebrity click bait, and kitten videos to achieve a digital dominance with the help of algorithms and the all-important “Share” button. How the frat-boy, immersive, edgy (and some would say out of control) video journalism of VICE not only threw out the entire playbook of what TV news and documentaries could be, but set it on fire. And in a way that gives equal credence to a segments on embedding with ISIS to that of having sex with donkeys.

It also details how the Times and Post were slow to embrace digital movement, and then fumbled the ball when customers could get eh same news free elsewhere as their own readers aged (and aged). All while watching print circulations drop and going-away parties for staffers become more and more frequent (Abramson notes that since 2000, 300 print newspapers have gone completely out of business, while the survivors have shed 60 percent of their workforce.).

The business models of newspapers have also been broken in the past decade. Newspaper classifieds – once a reliable, profitable part of the paper – have been all but killed by companies like Craigslist, Monster, and Auto Trader. Abramson shows how the papers have also struggled to merge their digital and print divisions, sometimes at odds with each other’s practices and goals.

The line between advertising and editorial, once an impenetrable wall, has gotten blurrier. The Times producing a magazine on “luxury” brands. And when VICE does a segment on the Ku Klux Klan – and out-of-sheet members are filmed wearing Nike shirts and Bud Light ball caps, that footage is erased or blurred. 

click to enlarge Jill Abramson, author of "The Merchants of Truth" and former "New York Times" Executive Editor - PHOTO BY AND COPYRIGHT SIMON LEIGH/SIMON AND SCHUSTER BOOK JACKET
Jill Abramson, author of "The Merchants of Truth" and former "New York Times" Executive Editor
Photo by and copyright Simon Leigh/Simon and Schuster book jacket
Then Abramson shows how all for media entities struggle with monetizing their content. The new world where stories aren’t judged anymore on content and quality, but how many Facebook likes, forwards, comments, and page views they generate – hard numbers that can then be shown to potential and existing advertisers.

Editors and writers also have the challenge of sweetening the experience online to enhance a story with video, graphics, and other interactive features. Then finally culminating in “audience development” – journo speak for a company’s own social media self-promotion, both native and paid.

And though not profiled extensively, Abramson weaves within the stories sections about the impact of Facebook and Google on journalism, from the “fake news” of Russian bots to paid rankings. Also explored are the unprecedented attacks journalism is facing today from the top tiers of the White House itself – President Trump’s “enemy of the people” proclamations, after journalists covered a presidential contest unlike any other.

Unfortunately, the rush to be first with a story has eliminated some of the safeguards normally in place with fact checking and sober thought, blackening the reputation of the media in high-profile instances.

Shortly after its release last week, The Merchants of Truth and Abramson herself have been enveloped in controversy. Abramson has been accused of intentional plagiarism – or at least a less-than-adequate citation of information from previously published sources – most notably called out by VICE correspondent Michael Moynihan. Abramson and Simon and & Schuster have mostly refuted the charges, and released statements to that effect.

Abramson admits she “fell short,” even with 70 pages of endnotes and citations and notes that an undetermined amount of citations should have been in quotes and “will be fixed” – presumably for future physical printings of the book but more immediate for the e-book. The social media mob has already lambasted author and publisher, and the irony of the book's title has not been lost. But others have noted the rush to online judgment actually proves a point that The Merchants of Truth is making.

Last week's news about Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos’ own war with American Media and the National Enquirer about stories concerning his marriage make it seem as if new chapters could be added daily to the book. Bezos' acquisition of the Post is also detailed.

It is a dense read, and not one for someone with a casual interest in the topics. But The Merchants of Truth is a detailed, insightful, comprehensive, and often frightening (there’s not a ton of good news here for the future) look at the state of journalism and media today. And I’m sure will generate thousands of blog posts…and think pieces…and reviews…and comments. And start Facebook arguments.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero