By Chet Yarbrough
Merchants of Truth (The Business of News and the Fight for Facts)
By: Jill Abramson
Narrated by January LaVoy
Jill Abramson (American author and journalist, first female executive editor of the NYT serving from 2011-2014.)
Jill Abramson describes a “near death” experience for print media in “Merchants of Truth”. She begins with the rise of BuzzFeed and Vice, with a newspaper reporter’s view of YouTube, and a vignette about Jackass. Then, she zeroes in on the “New York Times” and “Washington Post” and how their news coverage has changed. Abramson explores the principles of the new “Merchants of Truth”.
It is disappointing to see “click bate” competing with a news’s fight for verifiable facts.
To some, Abramson’s brief history of BuzzFeed and Vice is a cringe worthy exploration of how vapid we are and how easily we are distracted by titillating, often idiotic, and sometimes false facts. However, Abramson shows that BuzzFeed and Vice make a contribution to news gathering that appeals to a wide audience, particularly a younger audience.
The criticism Abramson launches against BuzzFeed, and particularly Vice, is that both slip into Gonzo (exaggerated and fictionalized) reporting. The public is titillated but not accurately informed.
BuzzFeed and Vice are becoming bigger players in the media news business. The key to their success is public attention but advertising revenue is its vehicle for growth. Pleasing advertisers encroaches on the objectivity of news.
BuzzFeed and Vice have reduced the barrier between advertising and news. That barrier breach is exhibited by Abramson’s story of The New York Times apology to China, and the Washington Post’s turn to the metrics of popular news coverage.
Abramson pulls no punches in her judgement of The New York Times’ bow to economic necessity in kowtowing to China when a reporter’s story is critical of Chinese suppression. She recounts Arthur Ochs Sulzberger’s letter apologizing to President Xi for a reporter’s story about Chinese government repression. Abramson implies the apology is for potential loss of revenue.
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. (Publisher of The New York Times.)
The implication is advertising revenue influences NYT’s and Washington Post’s reporting in the same way as BuzzFeed and Vice. The concern is in the bending and blending of news to please advertisers.
On the other hand, Sulzberger may have been concerned about losing a foreign outpost for the paper’s news reporters. One suspects, it is a little of both. There has always been a tacit concern about advertising revenue and news reporting in the media. One might recall “60 Minutes” initial rejection of an expose on smoking. They eventually aired the episode, but fear of loss from a major advertiser was in play.
Vice reporting of a trip to North Korea with Rodman (the former Bull’s basketball player) is one of several examples of click bate reporting. It offers titillation but hides the brutality of a murderous government regime.
As a fossil (oldster), one might read the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, a local paper, the Economist, and Foreign Affairs. The reason for variety is perspective. Each covers every aspect of news (culture, business, local and international).
Abramson explains reputable media outlets have checks and balances. They try to insure objectivity and accuracy in their reporting. The checks and balances sometimes fail as they did with the NYT’s Jason Blair. However, BuzzFeed, Vice, YouTube, Facebook, and other newcomers are just beginning to establish checks and balances.
Jayson Blair (Former journalist with The New York Times, fired for fabrication and plagiarism.).
New media argues that all societal beliefs should have equal expression. It is the same distortion some Americans claim for freedom. Americans have regulated freedom, just as they have regulated free speech. Freedom is to “do no harm to others”.
Another failure Abramson notes is the paucity of critical reporting by the New York Times and Washington Post of WMD in Iraq. Checks and balances did not work in either paper because of investigative failure.
All news media fight for facts. However, for many reasons, the facts chosen create spin.
With the addition of BuzzFeed, Vice, and YouTube the inherent bias of chosen facts is accelerated and amplified by emotion. Abramson implies spin is not the intent of reputable media like the New York Times and the Washington Post. One might disagree because all facts are not included in every report that is posted. All news reporting has some level of distortion.
Every merchant might report facts, but a listener/reader comes away with subtly, and sometimes, widely different understandings of the same story. It is not that facts are necessarily untrue, but choice of facts and the addition of emotion infects the story.
Additionally, there is inbred bias in the mind of listeners and readers of the news. Those listed as liberals, conservatives, or libertarians bring their personal beliefs into everything they read, hear, and say.
The difference between traditional news sources, and BuzzFeed or Vice, is elicited emotion. There is less fight for facts with BuzzFeed and Vice. Their fight is for attention whether the facts are correct or not.
Abramson shows how BuzzFeed and Vice, and similar “news” gatherers are willing to manufacture facts to get attention. BuzzFeed measures public expression and interest. BuzzFeed tailors’ articles to magnify whatever is popular. BuzzFeed’s and Vice’s objective is to get the reader to click their feed. It has less to do with a fight for facts than what Big Data tells these new “Merchants of Truth” is the public’s interest.
Videos, like Jackass that play on YouTube, fit into the titillation genre. However, as a merchant of truth, YouTube’s platform generates often useful information. Its platform offers do-it-yourself help, from people who demonstrate how they did it themselves.
YouTube also offers educational programming on current events, history, and science. As a “Merchant of Truth”, it is not fighting for facts. It, like BuzzFeed and Vice, is looking for clicks to increase advertising revenue.
BuzzFeed and Vice fight for attention, not facts. They make money for clicks whether facts are right or wrong. Advertisers are interested because attention drives sales.
Like BuzzFeed, it resists control of content to increase popularity under the cloak of freedom of speech. Both BuzzFeed and Facebook are struggling to keep hate out of their content without acting as Big Brother monitors of vitriol. Neither are focused on a fight for facts or truthful news. Both seek user clicks to give interest to vendors that will pay to advertise.
Facebook is a ubiquitous forum meant to connect society. In actuality, it appears Facebook is a forum that often reinforces and magnifies difference in society.
The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Economist, and Foreign Affairs have video and online feeds. Most offer those feeds to subscribers. Some, like Foreign Affairs want an additional fee for the online service. The degree of adoption of emotion by traditional media varies, but it creeps into all “Merchants of Truth”. All media serves what big data shows the public wants.
Abramson shows that national TV and newspaper coverage of the news have adopted some of the characteristics of BuzzFeed, Vice, and YouTube to improve their income, and economic viability.
Somewhat more ominously, Abramson explains how traditional media is adopting measurement metrics that tell publishers how many clicks or engagements reporters get from their writing. If news reports do not achieve a certain level of interest, the reporter’s continued employment and/or compensation becomes a topic for discussion. News is in danger of being measured by popularity, not substance.
Getting back to Abramson’s personal experience at The New York Times, she acknowledges not having much management experience when she became the Executive Editor of the paper. She notes former employers never offered management graduate courses for her to broaden her education. Undoubtedly, she was an excellent employee that got things done.
Abramson devotes a part of her book to air grievances about an “old boys club” in the news business. Other writers, as well as Abramson, have reported a double standard for women in the media industry. Women are viewed differently when they exhibit the same aggressiveness that men show as managers.
Abramson acknowledges she does not listen as carefully as she should when confronted with opposition. That is a characteristic of both men and women who have come up through the ranks of an organization. They are superstars. They get things done and are promoted to become managers.
In well managed companies, mentor-ships or management development programs are offered rising stars. They offer employees an opportunity to see the difference between doing things yourself to having things done through others, a skill set that can be taught.
Women and men rise in organizations to become managers by getting things done. Abramson notes that aggressiveness is judged differently in women. Women are called pushy while men are called forceful and effective.
Becoming a manager is a difficult transition because it involves ceding control that is the hallmark of an employee’s success as a doer of things. A manager needs to trust others to do the things that need to be done. One suspects it is more difficult for women to develop trust in others because of generations of unequal treatment. Whether a man or woman, when an employee becomes valuable as a person who gets things done, it is difficult to give up one’s control to others.
Being a manager requires trust in employees that may not do their jobs exactly the way a new manager (a former “doer of things”) believes they should be done. This is where skill-set adjustment is needed.
If an employee fails at a task, a new manager needs to help the employee overcome the failure. If the employee continues to fail, he/she will eventually be fired. If the employee succeeds, he/she goes on to the next task. Abramson’s dismissal may have been as much a function of unequal treatment as inadequate training. Her analytic and reporting skill is proven by her history and her analysis of media news in “Merchants of Truth”.
In a fight for facts, what a consumer can take from Abramson’s analysis is how important it is to read and listen to more than one “Merchant of Truth”. Finding truth is what Americans of conscience seek.
Freedom of speech cannot be an excuse for unvetted news.
Much of what Abramson’s personal experience is at The New York Times is reinforced by her analysis of the evolution of the Washington Post. This century has not been kind to traditional news media. It is in a state of transition. Some of us hope it evolves, and is not relegated to the trash bin of history.
The media for this generation is changing. What one hopes is that the best of each is eventually adopted. Every news source must be measured against truth. Determining truth is made up of true facts that no singular news outlet is capable of compiling.
“All the news that is fit to print” is an apt logo for the New York Times but it is misleading. History is continually revised because new facts are discovered, and the perspective of society changes. Americans need to be diligent in seeking the truth. The truth does not lie in one source.