Review: ‘Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and The Fight for Facts,’ by Jill Abramson

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Abramson details ‘wrenching transition’ of a new media world

Reviewed by Carolyn Schurr Levin

 Jill Abramson’s “Merchants of Truth” received a great deal of attention when it was published in February 2019. But, not for the right reasons. A day after its release, Vice News correspondent Michael Moynihan posted on Twitter paragraphs about his news outlet from Abramson’s book, side by side with similar paragraphs from The New Yorker, the Columbia Journalism Review, Time Out magazine, and other works. Abramson, who is the former Executive Editor of The New York Times, initially denied the allegations of plagiarism, claiming that some Vice News employees were unhappy with her portrayal of Vice in the book. Yet, she promised to carefully review the questioned passages.

After that review, Abramson acknowledged “citation errors” in the book, conceding that some passages included language that is “way too close for comfort” to its source material “and probably should have been in quotes.” In an interview with CNN, she said, “I made some errors in the way I credited sources, but that there was no attempt to pass off someone’s ideas, opinions and phrasings as my own.” Bill Keller, Abramson’s predecessor as the New York Times’ Executive Editor, tweeted support for his colleague: “Jill Abramson is a journalist of courage and integrity. She has written a great book on the profound transformation of the news business, richly documented and full of insight. It’s distressing that some apparent carelessness in attribution might overshadow her achievement.” Others were not as forgiving. 

The firestorm of criticism about plagiarism has now died down. So, is the book still worth reading over the summer break? The answer is decidedly “yes.” Abramson has tackled the issue that keeps college media advisers up at night. Our industry has undergone – and is still undergoing – a “wrenching transition” (as Abramson calls it). The newspaper industry shed $1.3 billion worth of editors’ and reporters’ jobs in the past decade, she writes. News has become “ubiquitous in the digital age,” but it is “harder than ever to find trustworthy information or a financial model that would support it.” What is the future? Will there be jobs for our students? Will there be jobs for us?

Abramson approaches these questions by chronicling the struggles of four companies – veteran newspapers the New York Times and the Washington Post, and upstart media outlets Vice News and BuzzFeed. But, lest her readers think that this is just the story of these four news outlets, she stresses that what she is investigating is “far bigger than just one industry.” This is about “truth and freedom in a democratic society, an informed citizenry,” and news sources that are “above politics in their reporting.” Put that way, it’s hard to think of a more worthy subject.

“Merchants of Truth” begins in 2007, “when it seemed almost everything changed,” Abramson writes. “That year saw the introduction of the iPhone and the news app that have become the dominant reading device for many of us.” In her reporting, Abramson spent two years, “hanging out with” the leaders, technologists, reporters and editors at the four companies in order to have “some sense of whether there was a future for quality news.” BuzzFeed, Vice and the Washington Post “opened their doors to me,” she writes, while many of her former colleagues at The New York Times gave “their time and perspectives.”

No doubt intentionally, Abramson begins with BuzzFeed, the disrupter, and not with one of the legacy newspapers. She provides a painstakingly detailed description of the genesis of BuzzFeed, all the way from Jonah Peretti’s childhood to the iconic BuzzFeed lists (“The 30 Most Important Cats of 2010”). Moving on to Vice, the other disrupter, Abramson again provides background about Shane Smith’s “rebellious early years” through Vice’s success as a “guerrilla video site.” The analysis of The New York Times and The Washington Post is different. Abramson starts with the “badly broken” business model for the legacy newspapers and chronicles their attempts to survive, including the “rescue” of The Post by Jeff Bezos.  

Because of her access to the players, the book is filled with interesting anecdotes and personal glimpses of the people – editors, reporters, and others – and the culture at the four companies. Abramson shares her own experience as the New York Times’ Executive Editor, including her firing. These intimate details allow the reader to connect with real people, not just to read a chronicle of the journeys of four companies. The relevance of Facebook to all players in the media industry, as well as the dawn of the era of “alternative facts,” are equally interesting aspects of the book. And, notwithstanding the plagiarism claims, Abramson’s book is heavily sourced, with pages of Notes, a Bibliography and detailed Index.

The discussion of journalistic ethics is also compelling. Many, if not most, college media advisers religiously teach and advise adherence to the SPJ Code of Ethics. Is that still even valid? Abramson makes clear that the new media upstarts were guided, at least in the beginning, by entirely different ethical precepts. “Vice jumped into the field of documentary news without much regard for or knowledge of long-established ethical standards that bound the broadcast and cable networks,” she writes. “The company spent no time pondering the differences between news and entertainment.” Because “Vice didn’t strictly define itself as a news provider, no one there worried about church-state issues, such as when advertisers influenced the content of stories. At BuzzFeed, Peretti gave permission to staff members to publish under pseudonyms, because staffers were reluctant to author especially vulgar posts “that their mothers would see” and also to make BuzzFeed’s staff “seem larger than it actually was.” Abramson, who spent the majority of her career at the New York Times writes, “Falsifying a byline is grounds for firing at most news organizations, but BuzzFeed wasn’t yet trying to be a news company.”

If there is one big takeaway from “Merchants of the Truth,” it is that there is no quick cure or everlasting panacea for the current state of the “news” business. Abramson, of course, cannot predict the future. But she thoroughly explains how four companies – two old and two new – are charting their courses in new terrain.

There are now “scores of places to find free news online,” Abramson writes. Indeed, to many, it seems “safer to get the news from trusted friends or family than any news site.” And, yet, new subscriptions to The New York Times and The Washington Post, like donations to ProPublica, have surged. The four profiled companies are surviving, if not thriving, because the news, in whatever form its delivery takes, remains “a necessary and vital part” of the country’s “social and intellectual fabric.”  Abramson is not despondent about the state of news. Despite the “disruption,” “turmoil” and “peril,” she clearly believes in the work being done by journalists, and hopes with this book “to inspire a new generation to follow their lead” and “to inform the larger public about the workings and worth of journalism.” Although “Merchants of Truth” may not answer the questions posed earlier – Will our students have jobs? Will we have jobs? – it is an important story at a critical juncture in time. 

Carolyn Levin

Carolyn Schurr Levin is a media lawyer who has taught media law courses at Long Island University, Stony Brook University, Baruch College, and Pace University. Before teaching full time, she was the Vice President and General Counsel of Newsday and the Vice President and General Counsel of Ziff Davis Media.

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