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What Jill Abramson Gets Wrong About the Future of Journalism

Her new book is a brilliant autopsy of print journalism. But she stumbles when she takes on the new digital wave.

Chris Keane/Getty Images

Jill Abramson’s new book, Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts, is billed as a “definitive report on the disruption of the news media over the last decade,” even as Abramson concedes halfway through that “[a]ny narrative, even one that is scrupulously factual and deserving of the omniscient third-person voice of the journalist-historian, is subjective by nature.” The common ground between “subjective” and “definitive” is a small place, but Abramson, as the first woman executive editor of The New York Times, is well placed to claim it. Her tenure at the top of the Times, from 2011 to 2014, coincided with the great shift in news publishing from print to digital, with all the financial chaos and ethical quarrels over clickbait that followed. The book is also a bitter account of the end of Abramson’s career at the Times, placing her own story in the middle of an ongoing debate over diversity in the newsroom.

Simon & Schuster, 544 pp., $30.00

Abramson’s experience at the pinnacle of American journalism could make her the best person to tell this story, since she had such a good view. It could also make her the worst, since she has a personal stake in trashing certain people and organizations. In Merchants of Truth, she ends up being a little of both. To write the history of the news industry in the twenty-first century, Abramson juxtaposes the troubles of the Times and The Washington Post with the rise of Vice Media and BuzzFeed. It is very clear where Abramson’s heart lies, and the heart tends to lead one’s head. The chapters on the Times and the Post are excellent. The other chapters are not.

In recent weeks, several younger journalists cited in Merchants of Truth have sparked a huge backlash to the book on social media, claiming that Abramson has misreported everything from their gender to the color of their shoes. Although the screenshots of errors circulating on Twitter were from uncorrected proofs, several significant errors remain in the final book that bear out her critics’ misgivings. The chapters on BuzzFeed and Vice mar what is otherwise an incisive autopsy of print journalism. The major reporting lapses all occur in these lesser sections analyzing the new online wave.

But therein lies the key to understanding Abramson as a journalistic animal. She derides new digital media as much with her tone as with her reporting, and yet the very same digital journalists she maligns now wield great influence within the industry—precisely as this book contends, while failing to truly reckon with how this all came to pass. Abramson’s mistakes and the controversy she has attracted have been useful in that respect, offering both a more vivid demonstration of her own argument and pointing us toward the psychological impetus that so many autobiographers suffer: the urge to turn oneself into the center of history.

Before she was pushed out of the Times, Jill Abramson was seen within the institution as a paragon of meticulousness and a force for improving the professional lives of women journalists. She has been criticized in the press for being “stubborn and condescending” and has fallen out with colleagues over her brusqueness, but Abramson’s long career speaks for itself. Abramson does not play up her achievements at the paper of record, but instead in a single sentence notes, “By the end of my first year [as executive editor], also for the first time in history, the masthead was half female. Black, Asian, and Latino journalists won promotions, though there was not enough racial diversity at the Times or any other newsroom.”

Abramson joined The New York Times in 1997, after nine years at The Wall Street Journal. As Washington, D.C., bureau chief beginning in 2000, Abramson occupied an important perch at the Times as it misreported the government’s claims over Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, a debacle she recounts with honesty and regret in Merchants of Truth. She was named co-managing editor for news in 2003, and executive editor in 2011.

Her account of being fired in 2014 makes Merchants of Truth essential reading. Perhaps my favorite line in the whole book is her polite acknowledgment that “[t]he Times disputes parts of the account that follows and I have noted these cases.” For example, the Times does not agree that “during my eight years as managing editor, my salary lagged behind one of the male masthead editors I outranked.” It also does not agree that, as executive editor, Abramson’s salary was what her predecessor Bill Keller’s “starting salary had been in 2003, a full decade earlier.”

The gossip in these sections is of high quality. During her tenure, Abramson describes a “new ad director” who “invited the marketing directors of several car companies to the Page One meeting during the New York Auto Show,” an outrageous violation of the church-and-state division of business and editorial. She recounts a critical letter that Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger hand-delivered to her in January 2014, describing “in shockingly personal terms” her “moodiness” and unlikeability, which she viewed as outright “sexist.” She suspected Dean Baquet, managing editor at the time, of feeding Sulzberger negative intel.

Abramson presents Baquet, who became executive editor after Abramson’s ouster, as the brittle and jealous culprit for her firing. The story essentially goes that Abramson offered a job of co-managing editor to Janine Gibson of The Guardian without consulting Baquet, because she assumed that CEO Mark Thompson was “briefing Sulzberger” and thus protecting her. Unfortunately this was not the case, and Baquet was furious that Gibson had been offered a job as his equal. “I knew Baquet liked the authority he had as sole managing editor,” Abramson admits. Baquet gave Sulzberger a “her or me” ultimatum. Abramson was not allowed to say goodbye to her staffers or to give a departing speech.

The Times is an opaque institution and these details are as delicious to read as they are rare. We learn, for example, that Thompson once demanded, over a linen tablecloth luncheon, that she focus on raising cash for the newsroom as well as running it, another breach of church and state. She snapped, “If that’s what you expect, you have the wrong executive editor.” As she spoke, “the uniformed waiter serving us spilled the water he was pouring.”

Abramson’s histories of the Times and the Post are careful accounts of how they managed the shift to digital in their operations. For a journalism nerd it’s extremely interesting, since Abramson lets us listen in on what the Sulzbergers say behind closed doors. But there are errors in Merchants of Truth and, as the Twitter firestorms pre-publication indicated, they are chiefly mischaracterizations of young media professionals.

For example, former Vice reporter Danny Gold tweeted about a “lie” he found in Abramson’s book, which remains in the final copy.* She claimed that, “In a story about an Ebola clinic in Africa, the [Vice] correspondent wore no protective clothing. In contrast, Times correspondents followed the same protocol as doctors (one reporter was herself a doctor), covering every inch of their bodies with protective clothing.” Gold responded that, “like every other reporter there,” he was “told by experts not to walk around with a PPE [personal protective equipment] unless you were in the ICU.” Furthermore, Gold said, Times reporters were given and followed the same advice. He guessed that Abramson got this “information” from a Hamilton Nolan blog post, ignoring an interview Gold himself gave her. She does cite Nolan in many places in the book. (Abramson did not respond to a request for an interview.)

The other mistakes fall into two overlapping categories: denigrating the credentials of young journalists working for BuzzFeed and Vice and poorly researching their biographies. In one section on BuzzFeed, for example, she describes how “Arabelle Sicardi, whose essays on womanhood and self-image packed more substance than most content on the site, was reassigned when her numbers lulled.” But Abramson misses the fact that Sicardi was actually pushed out after writing a post that criticized a BuzzFeed sponsor, Dove, which is a much more relevant and important story. Sicardi also uses the pronouns they/them, easily discoverable online, not she/her.

Abramson has attracted the most ire for a passage about Vice reporter Arielle Duhaime-Ross, whom she referred to in uncorrected proofs as a “transgender woman.” In the final edition, this has been edited to “a gender nonconforming woman,” but other mistakes remain. Abramson claims that Duhaime-Ross wore blue desert boots, which Duhaime-Ross says were brown, and she misstates the length of the reporter’s hair. More perniciously, Abramson frames these details within a deeply insulting portrait of Vice’s hiring procedure for on-screen reporters: “Most of the on-air talent was very young and had scant experience; only three had ever reported on camera before. What they had was ‘the look.’ They were diverse: just about every race and ethnicity and straight, gay, queer, and transgender. They were impossibly hip, with interesting hair.

Abramson claims that Duhaime-Ross had “no background in environmental policy”; in fact, she has a master’s degree in science, health, and environmental reporting, as her website states. She writes of Duhaime-Ross: “Biracial, she identified as black.” She adds, “She almost missed one of the most important stories on her beat,” about Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. Duhaime-Ross did not, in fact, almost miss that story. And the detail about her ethnicity reads as an accusation that Duhaime-Ross cynically played the minority for career gain.

In a recent interview with The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner about this incident, Abramson claims that she “meant no put-down” in this section, and that her point about Duhaime-Ross’s lack of experience was that she seemed “enterprising.” “No one corrected me. The transgender thing was an error,” she said, “and I corrected it for the final book.”

Abramson’s focus on younger journalists’ appearance sticks out like a sore thumb. In one section praising Cory Haik of The Washington Post, for example, she notes that this “native digerati ... looked perfectly cast for her role as digital innovation czar,” because she had “two-tone hair (with a scarlet streak), and wore extremely high heels and cool leopard-print dresses.” Repeatedly, Abramson writes about “cool points” as if they are an influential yet ultimately worthless metric in digital publishing, implying that it leads publications to hire inexperienced journalists. In describing a 2016 BuzzFeed party, for example, she derides its “self-congratulatory levity.” When Vice sent Dennis Rodman to North Korea in 2013, she calls it “scoring cool points like its business depended upon it, which was true.” What of the fact that Rodman gained access where few else had? Is Dennis Rodman “cool,” anyway, and if he is, didn’t Vice prove that “cool” has a function in reporting on North Korea?

These sections read like Abramson is speaking from a place of ill-informed bitterness over print’s loss of supremacy. They also speak to her failure as an interpreter of how media has changed. When she describes BuzzFeed’s hire of Katie Notopoulos, Abramson writes that she had no background in the news business. While it’s true that Notopoulos did not have a full-time media job prior to her hire, she was well known for her many excellent essays about internet subculture. To me, Notopoulos was a distinguished freelancer; to Abramson, she was a person with an “off-hours hobby.”

Abramson even maligns young Times staffers, writing about “the more ‘woke’ staff” who see “social media feeds as platforms for free exchange, not to be monitored or censored by editors,” the kind of employee who “looked to younger, newer editors like the Style section’s Choire Sicha and the editor of the Times Magazine, Jake Silverstein, for inspiration, rather than to the more distant and older masthead.” It’s abundantly clear what type of journalist she understands and cares about insulting, and which she does not.

Unfortunately, Abramson specifically charges new digital media with a neglect of fact-checking. In a section on Vice’s Thomas Morton reporting in Uganda, for example, she notes that he mistakenly called it the “drunkest place on earth.” She goes on: “The assertion fell apart after it was fact-checked, but it wasn’t fact-checked until it was published, and even then the fact-checking was done by an independent journalist who felt it necessary to hold Vice accountable.”

The irony is thick. Several articles followed the initial Twitter backlash to Abramson’s proofs, decrying the lack of fact-checking in book publishing. In her New Yorker interview, oddly, Abramson explains that the book was actually fact-checked. So how did certain errors make it into the final book? One answer is that Abramson was intent on shoring up a conclusion that she had reached well before she began her reporting: that digital media is sloppy, irreverent, not serious. But another possibility is that some of her statements simply read as false to “us,” by which I mean digital-native writers who have made their careers online.

Abramson’s rudeness to “woke” writers misses something crucial: the very serious political convictions that inform the work of younger journalists. Empathy for other people, an outspoken concern for gender equality, a recognition of the personal and professional stakes of representation: these are fundamental principles in new digital journalism, not afterthoughts. The misgendering is the perfect example. It’s a generational blind spot for Abramson. It does not occur to her to check pronouns, because among her professional milieu it has not been a priority.

If Merchants of Truth had focused on the Times and the Post alone, it would have been an excellent contribution to the history of journalism. So why did Abramson step out of her zone of expertise to profile digital media? It’s tempting to see the answer in the circumstances of her own career. If the younger generation suffers from a lack of traditional newsroom training in fairness and ethics and reporting, then the loss of Jill Abramson means something.

Of course, losing her did mean something to many people at the Times. But Abramson’s narrative insists on a meeting of the personal and the historical, when her ouster could more easily be chalked up to factors that are as timeless as they are petty: the machinations of an underling, say, who wants to be king. What we’re left with is half of a great book, and half of a book that recommends to other late-career journalists that they take their inheritors seriously. The digital natives now have loud voices, magnified by the authority of their political convictions. You have to meet change on its level—especially if you’re trying to sell the truth.

*A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Danny Gold as a Vice reporter. He is no longer with the company.