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Book Reviews Review: How Jill Abramson tells the truth in two tales about the state of modern journalism

  • Title: Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts
  • Author: Jill Abramson
  • Publisher: Simon and Schuster
  • Pages: 544

For a moment, hold these two thoughts in your head. BuzzFeed, source of terrific investigative reports as well as quizzes about Disney princes, recently laid off 15 per cent of its staff, many of them journalists in the company’s global news divisions.

Also: The person who produces some of BuzzFeed’s most popular content is Rachel McMahon, a 19-year-old student from Michigan, who has never been paid by the company except in free coffee mugs (One of her most popular quizzes was, “Which Pop Tart flavour matches your personality best?”). McMahon has, quite poignantly, publicly expressed her sadness over the loss of the journalists’ jobs, which is more than you can say for Buzzfeed’s very rich founder and CEO, Jonah Peretti.

How did we get to this place, where journalism is so disposable and Pop Tarts so lucrative? Should I, a journalist, now consider a plan B as a baker of delicious toasted pastries? I found an answer to the first question in Jill Abramson’s richly detailed new book, Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts (some of these details have been questioned by sources quoted in the book, which we’ll get to later.)

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For her survey of the modern media landscape, Abramson chose to follow the model of David Halberstam’s 1979 media history, The Powers That Be, by profiling four companies. In one corner are the multi-platform, web-based upstarts, Vice and BuzzFeed; in the other are the indomitable print-based dowagers of American journalism, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Really, though, Abramson is telling two stories. One, on a macro level, is about the head-spinning forces that have shaped journalism in the past two decades – the evolution of communications technology, the erosion of public trust, the hunger of investors and hedge funds to fatten their prey, devour it, and then excrete the unwanted husks.

She sets that against a Russian novel’s worth of tiny, illuminating detail: Shane Smith, the co-founder of Vice, “once dropped nearly half a million dollars at the Bellagio steakhouse;” BuzzFeed brought therapy puppies into the office to console distraught staff after Donald Trump’s election; the New York Times cared so little for its website, initially, that it was entrusted to “a septuagenarian former foreign editor known for falling asleep in meetings.”

Ha! Except for the fact that the New York Times, buoyed by its coverage of a corrupt political regime, has recently seen its subscriptions soar. Talk about having the last laugh. It’s a mark of Abramson’s generosity – and her reporter’s instinct to follow the facts – that she expresses very little bitterness towards her former employer.

Famously, Abramson was the first woman appointed as executive editor of the Times, in 2011. She fought for diversity and digital innovation, alienated underlings and was rewarded with a performance evaluation that she translated this way: “People think you’re a bitch." By 2014, she was the first female executive editor fired by the Times.

Abramson is temperate when considering the role that sexism played in her downfall, but she fairly simmers when reporting the misogyny that flourishes in other news outlets, especially Vice, the breakout punk star of journalism that was co-founded in the mid-90s by three Canadian buddies dedicated to upheaval and raunch. Twenty years into its existence, despite having grown into a corporation beloved by investors and viewers, Abramson writes, “sexual harassment was an endemic part of Vice’s culture.”

Indeed, Vice takes most of the punches in Merchants of Truth. While she celebrates some of its groundbreaking investigations into white supremacist groups and immigration, Abramson pummels Vice for its sexism, for underpaying its journalists (while fattening its owners and investors), and for blurring the line between advertising and editorial. You can almost hear the frost rising from this sentence: “The company spent no time pondering the difference between news and entertainment.”

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Some Vice journalists think Abramson is living in a glass house. At least three of them, having read advance copies of Merchants of Truth, accuse her of getting facts wrong or misrepresenting their words. Thomas Morton, who was interviewed for the book, wrote a rebuttal post in which he claimed “there is a major mistake in practically every sentence.”

The book has also drawn allegations of plagiarism. Michael Moynihan of Vice News detailed on Twitter several passages, including one from a 2005 Ryerson Review of Journalism profile of Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes, that were “cribbed” from other reporters’ stories. Some of the passages he cited were sourced in Abramson’s endnotes, but bore very close resemblance to the original material.

Abramson responded in an interview on Fox News on Wednesday, “I certainly didn’t plagiarize in my book, and there’s 70 pages of footnotes showing where I got the information.” Later, on Twitter, she said she would investigate the claims of plagiarism: “I take seriously the issues raised and will review the passages in question.”

Will this contretemps undermine the public’s trust in journalism? As Abramson points out, trust in legitimate media outlets is actually increasing, probably because of unease around disinformation. High-profile bickering of this type may take some toll; at the same time, it’s an example of transparency, a pulling back of the curtain, that journalism could desperately use.

Worries about public trust are only one of the existential crises facing our industry. A roll of Tums should really be included in the price of Merchants of Truth, to counter all the teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing contained in its pages. Its lessons can be neatly encapsulated in two sentences found near the end. “Everyone was struggling to do more with less,” and this little shiv aimed at online companies with valuations in the billions of dollars: “No one could say whether either Vice or BuzzFeed was actually profitable.”

The end of the book, I should say. Not the end of journalism. Because, oddly, despite the teeth-gnashing, there’s a lot of hope here. BuzzFeed and Vice may have grown too quickly and greedily, but each is still producing innovative and important journalism. The Washington Post, saved from irrelevance through the unlikely patronage of the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, is flourishing at the forefront of America’s political conversation. The New York Times, its sails trimmed, is racing toward the future.

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The Times and the Post may one day be among the only ships unsunk. The massive profits that owners once relied on no longer keep newspapers or digital outlets afloat. The way ahead is already being explored by innovative media companies using non-profit or reader-sponsored models. That may be the plan B for everyone who loves this crazy, tumultuous, vital business.

The Canadian Connection: Vice Media Inc.

Ottawan Shane Smith acquired magazine Voice of Montreal in 1994 and with co-founders Suroosh Alvi and Gavin McInnes and changed its name to Vice. The company branched out into digital sphere and soon became a global media organization that focused on a younger audience. In 2018, Smith resigned as chief executive officer after the New York Times published damaging reports of workplace harassment.

Want to learn more about truthiness? These three books will help

Personal History, by Katharine Graham. A riveting memoir by the woman who led the Washington Post through its Watergate coverage and some of its most illustrious days, and winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 1998.

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World, by Matthew Goodman. The end of the 19th century was also an era of fierce media competition and rapid technological advance. This is the gripping story of two groundbreaking female journalists locked in a race for readers’ attention.

The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread, by Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall. If you’ve chosen to read a book by two academics about the history of shoddy information, you’re probably not part of the fake news problem. Feel free to pass it on to Facebook friends who could use it.​

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Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include allegations of plagiarism.

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