Newsroom Confidential: Classes (and Worries) from an Ink-Stained Life, by Margaret Sullivan, St. Martin’s, 288 pages, $28.99
It takes all of two paragraphs in her memoir-cum-polemic Newsroom Confidential for press critic Margaret Sullivan to unwittingly undermine her thesis that journalism within the age of Donald Trump must “shout…from the rooftops” that the destiny of democracy itself hinges on the victory of reality over (largely right-wing) lies.
“By the spring” of 2021, Sullivan writes, in a passage deploring conservative “denialism” concerning the January 6 Capitol riot, “a Republican congressman would describe the violent assault as one thing that seemed like ‘a normal tourist visit.’”
Sullivan, the recently retired Washington Post media columnist best known for her 2012–2016 stint as New York Times public editor, does not name the allegedly denialist congressman, so I did a quick search to double-check the quote and context. It was Rep. Andrew Clyde (R–Ga.), at a May 2021 House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing titled “The Capitol Insurrection: Unexplained Delays and Unanswered Questions,” at which he began his remarks like this:
This hearing is called “The Capitol Insurrection.” Let’s be sincere with the American folks: It was not an revolt, and we can not name it that and be truthful.
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines revolt as, and I quote, “an organized attempt by a group of people to defeat their government and take control of their country, usually by violence.” After which, from The Century Dictionary, “the act of rising against civil authority or governmental restraint, specifically the armed resistance of a number of persons to the power of the state.”
As one of many members who stayed within the Capitol and on the Home flooring, who with different Republican colleagues helped barricade the door till nearly 3 p.m. that day from the mob who tried to enter, I can inform you: The Home flooring was by no means breached, and it was not an revolt.
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That is the reality: There was an undisciplined mob, there have been some rioters, and a few who dedicated acts of vandalism. However let me be clear: There was no revolt, and to name it an revolt, for my part, is a bold-faced lie. Watching the TV footage of those that entered the Capitol and walked by means of Statuary Corridor confirmed folks in an orderly vogue staying between the stanchions and ropes taking movies and footage. You already know, in the event you didn’t know the TV footage was a video from January the sixth, you’d really suppose it was a standard vacationer go to.
There have been no firearms confiscated from anybody breaching the Capitol. Additionally, the one shot fired on January the sixth was from a Capitol Police officer who killed an unarmed protester, Ashli Babbitt.
We are able to argue over the phrase “insurrection” and its applicability to January 6. (Sullivan for one makes use of it as her default descriptor.) We are able to undoubtedly criticize Clyde for expending his invaluable time throughout an vital listening to about an appalling occasion policing language as a substitute of pointing fingers at his personal political social gathering. However what we can not do, if we’re severe about journalistic reality, is assert that the congressman was “describ[ing] the violent assault as one thing that seemed like ‘a normal tourist visit.’”
Clyde plainly described the attackers as “an undisciplined mob” that included “some rioters, and some who committed acts of vandalism.” A normal tourist visit that is not. The congressman’s controversy-generating formulation was utilized to a discrete piece of TV footage and a selected viewing situation: If somebody didn’t know concerning the January 6 connection, and occurred to observe the clip “of those who entered the Capitol and walked through Statuary Hall…in an orderly fashion staying between the stanchions and ropes taking videos and pictures,” that viewer wouldn’t have discovered it notably uncommon. An precise revolt, he was positing (considerably hyperbolically, given the variety of flagpoles and trespassers who ventured outdoors the roped-off path), wouldn’t embody violence-free scenes like that; ergo, he concluded, the listening to’s very identify was an improper exaggeration.
These distinctions had been of little curiosity to a press corps that has more and more taken the recommendation of Sullivan and her era of media critics in preferencing “moral clarity” over conventional “objectivity,” and in rejecting “false equivalence” and “bothsidesism” within the face of asymmetrical mendacity by authoritarian conservatives. Sensitively attuned for indicators of GOP truth-washing, journalists plucked Clyde’s quote out of context to bolster a bigger and extra vital narrative than any piddling linguistic distinction between “riot” and “insurrection.”
“A GOP congressman compared Capitol rioters to tourists. Photos show him barricading a door,” The Washington Submit breathlessly reported six days later. NBC, leaning into the Trump-era journalistic fad of naming and shaming Republican falsehoods, invented a falsehood of its personal in its lead paragraph:
A number of Republican members of Congress on Wednesday provided a false retelling of the devastating occasions that occurred throughout the Capitol riot, with one calling your entire occasion a “bold faced lie” that extra intently resembled a “normal tourist visit” than a lethal assault.
Clyde didn’t name “the entire event” a “bold faced lie” (no matter which may imply); he mentioned that describing it as an “insurrection” was.
Scores of stories organizations, and Sullivan herself, might have prevented botching a severe accusation by conducting 90 seconds of analysis. The truth that they didn’t contributes to one of many very tendencies they abhor—the collapse of public belief in journalism, notably amongst conservatives.
“I left conversations like this feeling almost sickened,” Sullivan recounts in her e-book, after receiving anti-media earfuls throughout a post-2016-election listening tour of Republican districts. “I couldn’t help but recognize that when it came to acknowledging basic truths, huge swaths of America were very far gone.” Sadly for her skilled cohort, that feeling is commonly mutual.
How can journalists (and information shoppers) break the self-reinforcing doom-loop between media and citizen? It’s a damnably laborious and vital query. Sullivan articulated one sound method again in September 2012: “The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them,” she wrote in considered one of her first items as New York Instances public editor, “the better off the readership—and the democracy—will be.”
Ten years on, Sullivan emphasizes extra the confidence of asserting truths somewhat than the meticulousness of marshaling the supporting proof. Her writing vibrates with pleasure when recounting such favourite zingers as “Fox News has become an American plague,” and it boils to a righteous fury when relating to Trump: “I continually felt that irrational anger like an unending blast of liquid poison from an industrial-strength hose.” However the prose plods to a crawl when detailing the meat-and-potatoes journalism of being editor of the Buffalo Information. Arguing vituperatively about nationwide politics on the prime of the media pyramid is fairly enjoyable, seems!
Readers of Newsroom Confidential are properly suggested to maintain a search tab open to examine Sullivan’s claims. Amongst them: that Russia “interfere[d] with the  election, and did so very effectively,” that Fb (“one of the chief enemies of democracy”) “became a pawn in Russia’s disinformation campaign in the United States,” and that the social media firm’s “endless misdeeds” included “the ones that spread lies and helped Trump get elected.” Such statements could also be articles of religion amongst many Democrats and journalists, however a few of us attend completely different church buildings, and require extra verification.
Within the e-book’s second paragraph about January 6 “denialism,” Sullivan additionally accuses Mike Pence of “trying to sow doubt” concerning the occasion throughout an October 2021 Fox Information interview with Sean Hannity, stating that “the vice chairman downplayed the revolt as merely ‘one day in January.’”
What did Pence actually say? “January 6 was a tragic day in the history of our Capitol building. But thanks to the efforts of Capitol Hill police, federal officials, the Capitol was secured. We finished our work.” Then the ex-veep tried gamely (and lamely) to change the subject in a way more palatable to Fox viewers: “I know the media wants to distract from the Biden administration’s failed agenda by specializing in at some point in January. They need to use that at some point to try to demean the…character and intentions of 74 million People.”
Minimization? Possibly. Diversion? Completely. Sowing doubt? Two Pinocchios.
The strangest half about Sullivan’s hyperbole in the reason for larger reality is that the most important sufferer right here is her goal demographic: journalists. Regardless of flattering them with the cringe-inducing moniker of “reality-based press,” she repeatedly caricaturizes their allegedly cussed skilled resistance to leaping off the objectivity fence.
“Should they call out the lies?” Sullivan writes, imagining the Hamlet-like inner deliberations of Trump-era information organizations. “Should they bend over backward to normalize political behavior that was blasting through every guardrail of democracy? Should they try to look even-handed and neutral at any cost, giving equal treatment of both sides of a political conflict, even if the two sides aren’t equally valid? They didn’t seem to know. And too often, they seemed to be in a defensive crouch, while right-wing commentators branded them as left-wing activists.”
Information shoppers who aren’t partisan Democrats could have a tough time recognizing the newsrooms Sullivan portrays. And people acquainted with the media controversies she zips by means of might be downright baffled by how somebody so pious about calling out Republican falsehoods can within the subsequent breath decrease the journalistic transgressions of individuals she finds extra sympathetic.
“I admire Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times for her bravery and vision in writing about the influence on American history of enslaved people’s arrival in the English colonies in 1619,” Sullivan writes. Er, OK, however what concerning the 1619 Venture’s well-documented historic flaws and Hannah-Jones’s unprofessional response to criticism? “Her introductory essay won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, and it kicked off an incredible furor among those who refused to make room for what it had to say. Despite the pushback (a tiny portion of which was grounded in objections by a few historians to some of the project’s assertions), it accomplished its goals.” So: scoreboard.
Sullivan expresses real anguish about having needed to criticize the deeply flawed New York Instances nail-salons exposé by Sarah Maslin Nir, calling it “one of the most stressful episodes” of her public-editorship. “I had the feeling of betraying the young sisterhood who had reached out to me,” she writes, whereas repeatedly stressing the “virtues” of Nir’s investigation. (To see Purpose‘s more direct critique, which Sullivan does not mention in the book but addressed in 2015, start here.)
During and after the media’s nervous breakdown over race in the summertime of 2020, Sullivan tried to journey the tiger of the younger newsroom staffs busy defenestrating their elders. “It’s the kind of mess that American journalists could come out of stronger and better if they—and the American people they serve—grapple with some difficult questions,” she wrote in June 2020.
In Newsroom Confidential she marches by means of a sequence of firings, resignations and lawsuits (Donald McNeil, Jr., James Bennet, Felicia Somnez, and many others.), and regards the conflicts extra as overdue correctives than panicky personnel selections. “Often, I was [on] the side of what was disparagingly and falsely called the ‘woke mob’—the younger, more diverse staffers who were supposedly running roughshod through Big Journalism’s newsrooms,” she writes, once more making daring assertions with out supporting proof. “If ‘mob,’ a misnomer, meant that staff finally had enough strength in numbers to force long-delayed change at hidebound institutions, I could get behind that.”
That cavalier method to due course of foreshadows what’s the worst a part of most nonfiction books, however this one particularly—the inevitable what’s to be performed chapter close to the tip.
Sounding rather a lot like somebody cramming for a last-minute pop quiz on coverage, Sullivan rat-a-tats a bunch of concepts assured to make civil libertarians squirm. “Those who care about truth must do everything in their power to minimize the harm caused by those media outlets and platforms that traffic in lies and conspiracy theories,” she begins, unpromisingly. “Responsible lawsuits…will be a necessary part of this. Advertising boycotts can help. So will efforts to reduce the revenue of news organizations that spread misinformation—Fox News, in particular—by limiting the amount of money they make from lucrative cable transmission fees.”
The recommendations worsen with social media. There’s the “meaningful regulation to counter the excesses of the social media platforms,” amending Part 230 of the Communications Decency Act (albeit “cautiously”), and “changing laws that shield digital platforms, like Facebook, from being held legally responsible for the content they magnify and amplify via their algorithms.” What might go incorrect?
“All of this,” Sullivan graciously concedes, “has to be carefully balanced with preserving free speech, but First Amendment concerns shouldn’t be used as an all-powerful shield against regulation.” Thank God there are folks moreover journalists on the market enthusiastic about defending the First Modification.
With more and more open assaults on liberalism coming from each main events, the issues of journalism—in each manufacturing and consumption—are actual and urgent, if melodramatically acknowledged by Sullivan. (“Above all, the reality-based press should rededicate itself to being pro-democracy,” she writes. “Then, I think, America gets a fighting chance.”)
There’s one other new e-book that tackles largely the identical set of points, sharing lots of Sullivan’s underlying considerations, but comes out with diametrically opposed suggestions. Damaged Information—by former Fox Information reporter Chris Stirewalt, who was booted from the community after his Choice Desk known as the 2020 presidential race early for Joe Biden in Arizona—complains that, “Just at the exact moment where it would have been most important for journalists to maintain the highest possible standards for objectivity, big-time news dove in the mud with Trump, where he had home field advantage.”
Stirewalt, who shares Sullivan’s alarm at “the growing appetite for demagoguery among Republicans and Americans in general,” sees a entice in information organizations spending “so much time dumping on the coverage of competitors”—shoppers’ nationwide political hatreds are being profitably organized on a budget, with out a lot in the best way of related factual vitamins.
“Media criticism,” Stirewalt expenses, “has become its own rancid subculture inside the already rotten media business….[It’s] a great way to keep addicted consumers from straying. The message is obvious: Aren’t you glad you’re not like them, and are here with the other smart, virtuous people?”
With the current cancellation of CNN’s long-running journalism-analysis present Dependable Sources, and with the ongoing struggles of properties resembling The Washington Submit to take care of viewers with Trump out of workplace, we might be coming into in a brand new period for media criticism and elite self-examination. Margaret Sullivan dominated that area over the previous decade; right here’s hoping that whoever takes her place resists taking the partisan bait.