I’m looking forward to reading Jill Abramson’s Merchants of Truth — I’d suggest it for a Balloon Juice Book Club post, except I doubt there’s room for such in the current era. A semi-review from historian Jill LePore, in the New Yorker:
… By some measures, journalism entered a new, Trumpian, gold-plated age during the 2016 campaign, with the Trump bump, when news organizations found that the more they featured Trump the better their Chartbeat numbers, which, arguably, is a lot of what got him elected. The bump swelled into a lump and, later, a malignant tumor, a carcinoma the size of Cleveland. Within three weeks of the election, the Times added a hundred and thirty-two thousand new subscribers. (This effect hasn’t extended to local papers.) News organizations all over the world now advertise their services as the remedy to Trumpism, and to fake news; fighting Voldemort and his Dark Arts is a good way to rake in readers. And scrutiny of the Administration has produced excellent work, the very best of journalism. “How President Trump Is Saving Journalism,” a 2017 post on Forbes.com, marked Trump as the Nixon to today’s rising generation of Woodwards and Bernsteins. Superb investigative reporting is published every day, by news organizations both old and new, including BuzzFeed News.
By the what-doesn’t-kill-you line of argument, the more forcefully Trump attacks the press, the stronger the press becomes. Unfortunately, that’s not the full story. All kinds of editorial decisions are now outsourced to Facebook’s News Feed, Chartbeat, or other forms of editorial automation, while the hands of many flesh-and-blood editors are tied to so many algorithms. For one reason and another, including twenty-first-century journalism’s breakneck pace, stories now routinely appear that might not have been published a generation ago, prompting contention within the reportorial ranks. In 2016, when BuzzFeed News released the Steele dossier, many journalists disapproved, including CNN’s Jake Tapper, who got his start as a reporter for the Washington City Paper. “It is irresponsible to put uncorroborated information on the Internet,” Tapper said. “It’s why we did not publish it, and why we did not detail any specifics from it, because it was uncorroborated, and that’s not what we do.” The Times veered from its normal practices when it published an anonymous opinion essay by a senior official in the Trump Administration. And The New Yorker posted a story online about Brett Kavanaugh’s behavior when he was an undergraduate at Yale, which Republicans in the Senate pointed to as evidence of a liberal conspiracy against the nominee.
There’s plenty of room to argue over these matters of editorial judgment. Reasonable people disagree. Occasionally, those disagreements fall along a generational divide. Younger journalists often chafe against editorial restraint, not least because their cohort is far more likely than senior newsroom staff to include people from groups that have been explicitly and viciously targeted by Trump and the policies of his Administration, a long and growing list that includes people of color, women, immigrants, Muslims, members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community, and anyone with family in Haiti or any of the other countries Trump deems “shitholes.” Sometimes younger people are courageous and sometimes they are heedless and sometimes those two things are the same. “The more ‘woke’ staff thought that urgent times called for urgent measures,” Abramson writes, and that “the dangers of Trump’s presidency obviated the old standards.” Still, by no means is the divide always or even usually generational. Abramson, for instance, sided with BuzzFeed News about the Steele dossier, just as she approves of the use of the word “lie” to refer to Trump’s lies, which, by the Post’s reckoning, came at the rate of more than a dozen a day in 2018.
The broader problem is that the depravity, mendacity, vulgarity, and menace of the Trump Administration have put a lot of people, including reporters and editors, off their stride. The present crisis, which is nothing less than a derangement of American life, has caused many people in journalism to make decisions they regret, or might yet. In the age of Facebook, Chartbeat, and Trump, legacy news organizations, hardly less than startups, have violated or changed their editorial standards in ways that have contributed to political chaos and epistemological mayhem. Do editors sit in a room on Monday morning, twirl the globe, and decide what stories are most important? Or do they watch Trump’s Twitter feed and let him decide? It often feels like the latter. Sometimes what doesn’t kill you doesn’t make you stronger; it makes everyone sick. The more adversarial the press, the more loyal Trump’s followers, the more broken American public life. The more desperately the press chases readers, the more our press resembles our politics.
The problems are well understood, the solutions harder to see. Good reporting is expensive, but readers don’t want to pay for it. The donation-funded ProPublica, “an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force,” employs more than seventy-five journalists. Good reporting is slow, good stories unfold, and most stories that need telling don’t involve the White House. The Correspondent, an English-language version of the Dutch Web site De Correspondent, is trying to “unbreak the news.” It won’t run ads. It won’t collect data (or, at least, not much). It won’t have subscribers. Like NPR, it will be free for everyone, supported by members, who pay what they can. “We want to radically change what news is about, how it is made, and how it is funded,” its founders state. Push-notifications-on news is bad for you, they say, “because it pays more attention to the sensational, exceptional, negative, recent, and incidental, thereby losing sight of the ordinary, usual, positive, historical, and systematic.” What will the Correspondent look like? It will stay above the fray. It might sometimes be funny. It’s slated to début sometime in 2019. Aside from the thing about ads, it sounds a lot like a magazine, when magazines came in the mail…
Warning: LePore wraps her essay with her childhood history in the newspaper (delivery) business… and there’s a distinct possibility that the closing paragraph will break your heart.