Jill Abramson’s Merchants of Truth fails to reliably report on the new media

It is, at the very minimum, ironic that a book about slipping media standards is full of errors.

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What is news? Is it a commodity or a luxury item? Can you quantify it, or will only qualitative measures suffice? Can what made newspapers and journalism so crucial to democracy even work in the internet age? Can a business model be found to sustain it? And will its purveyors be value-agnostic technologists bent on refining algorithms that control our attention, or will there still be a place for traditional editor judgement?

In alternating chapters, Jill Abramson’s Merchants of Truth attempts to answer these questions by telling the story of two of the media’s most potent disrupters – BuzzFeed and Vice – alongside that of two of its most storied old guard – the New York Times and the Washington Post – as they navigate these shoals.

Taking an early kicking, the old learn from the new: the news desks of the Post and the Times are at first resistant to any erosion of the “church and state” that keeps news separate from business, and the use of analytics to inform story placement and commissioning – both things that come naturally to their new rivals. Slowly, they come around to realising that the world has changed and so must they.

But the upstarts have hard lessons to learn too. Vice fails to understand that its growth means that it will be held to higher standards, both in terms of broadcast ethics and its wider office culture. BuzzFeed is caught quietly deleting old and embarrassing posts en masse, and faces accusations of “content farming” plagiarised material from elsewhere. Both eventually fall foul of economic reality too, disappointing investors by missing revenue targets. The wild growth they both promised proves tough to maintain in perpetuity, especially given how much they depend on Facebook’s opaque and capricious news feed algorithm.

That process is still ongoing. In January, just over a week before the book’s UK release, BuzzFeed partly gutted its newsroom. Forty three reporters were let go in New York alone, where its well-respected national news and national security desks were shut down completely. Nearly half of the staff in its UK and Australian newsrooms were also made redundant, along with its bureau in Spain. Its office in France had already been dismantled. Cruelly, the latest redundancies were staggered across a weekend. It made for a grim coda to the story of new and old media: the company thought to have cracked the problem of how to do digital news well had thudded back to earth.

On paper at least, Abramson’s greatest advantage in telling this story is her proximity to it. As executive editor of the New York Times between 2011 and 2014, and managing editor before that, she was a key player at a key time for the industry. Abramson saves her most acerbic and cutting observations for the upstarts, at one point referring to Vice founder Shane Smith simply as “Bullshitter Shane”. But her feeling for the Times borders on worship, and sometimes that interferes with her objectivity. After rightly criticising Times reporter Judith Miller’s use of anonymous sources as the basis of her credulous coverage of the run-up to the war in Iraq, Abramson then leans on anonymous quotes from friends and colleagues in recalling her tenure at the paper, especially her fractious departure in 2014.

When she admits that “any narrative, even one that is scrupulously factual and deserving of the omniscient third-person voice of the journalist-historian, is subjective by nature”, she is apologising only for not being able to detach herself enough from the Times. More troublingly, some of her subjects have raised questions about her sourcing and accuracy in other sections, especially parts about Vice. One staffer whom Abramson picks on specifically, Arielle Duhaime-Ross, took to Twitter to complain that in the paragraph where she is mentioned “there are SIX errors and several false implications”, including that Abramson had misidentified her as transgender.

Another former Vice journalist, Danny Gold, called a throwaway line – which implied without naming him that he had been sloppy or lacked advice on protective clothing while covering the Ebola outbreak in Africa – a “straight-up lie”. Thomas Morton, a senior Vice editor and on-air correspondent, wrote a lengthy, acerbic post saying there was “a major mistake in practically every sentence” and noting “chronological sequences so scrambled they literally create instances of the grandfather paradox”.

Abramson said on Twitter that the errors were from uncorrected proofs, but Duhaime-Ross later said that while the paragraph in the finished book no longer misidentifies her gender, other inaccuracies remain. The relationship between writer and reader is based on trust, and one is forced to ask how much licence Abramson is taking, exactly, in recounting events and the thoughts of various players.

It is, at the very minimum, ironic that a book about slipping media standards appears to have been so poorly fact-checked by its publisher. It is even worse if, as seems to be at least partly the case, Abramson approached writing about Vice with the same contempt that she implicitly condemns in its culture. Most of the problems she describes at the company, such as sexual harassment, have been covered extensively elsewhere, so the big picture may be correct – but for a book about the very mechanics of truth, merely ringing true isn’t really good enough.

Nicky Woolf is editor of New Statesman America

Merchants of Truth: Inside the News Revolution
Jill Abramson
Bodley Head, 544pp, £25

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

This article appears in the 08 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Broken Europe