It’s easy to imagine how Jill Abramson’s new book might have turned out differently. In “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts,” the veteran journalist follows the fortunes of four media organizations. BuzzFeed and Vice are young, energetic, willing to break rules and try new things. The New York Times and The Washington Post are stodgy, sclerotic giants trying to grope their way toward a digital future. We all know how that’s going to turn out. Right?
Well, something unexpected happened on the way to the old-media boneyard.
Sullivan, a former editor of the Buffalo News, joins a team of experienced media observers at the Post, including reporter Paul Farhi and blogger Erik Wemple. She is the Post’s first media columnist since Howard Kurtz, who left in 2010 for the Daily Beast. (Kurtz was also the host of CNN’s Reliable Sources. He moved to Fox News in 2013 following some well-publicized problems at both the Beast and CNN.)
The Post’s hiring of Sullivan shows just how small the world of elite media can be, given that she was recruited while serving as the Times’s public editor, as the paper calls its ombudsman. Sullivan was the fifth and, to my eyes, the best. As Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post put it, Sullivan “radically updated the role for the digital age by quickly addressing Times-related controversies and debates in real time and actively engaging on social media.” Sullivan will be replaced by Elizabeth Spayd, currently the editor-in-chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review and previously (yes, you guessed it) an editor at the Washington Post.
Needless to say, it will be interesting to see whether and how Sullivan chooses to write about the Times. In a recent interview with public radio’s On the Media, she praised her former employer—but also expressed frustration over an institutional attitude of “when the Times decides to cover it, then it becomes news” as well as bemusement over its oft-mocked trend stories. Indeed, Sullivan started something she called the “Monocle Meter” after the Times ran a story about the supposed resurgence of monocles in Brooklyn—a resurgence that apparently came and went without anyone actually ever having been spotted wearing a monocle.
Rutenberg, a veteran political reporter, got into a spat recently when he wrote that not only did journalists in general miss the rise of Donald Trump, but so did data journalists like Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, whose empirically based methodology should in theory produce more accurate results. In a two-fer of Times-Post incestuousness, Rutenberg invoked an observation by the Post’s Farhi that “nothing exceeds the value of shoe-leather reporting” in criticizing Silver, who moved his site from the Times to ESPN after the 2012 presidential election.
Silver, never one to suffer in silence, ripped into Rutenberg on a FiveThirtyEight podcast. As Bill Wyman wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review, Silver called Rutenberg’s column “dishonest” and “unethical,” and rehashed some old grievances over the way he was treated at the Times by Rutenberg and others, saying they were “incredibly hostile and incredibly unhelpful.” Silver later subtweeted Rutenberg with a lengthy article in which he argued that he got Trump wrong not because of an overreliance on data but because his predictions that Trump would fade weren’t based on any data at all. “In other words,” Silver wrote, “we were basically acting like pundits.”
The rivalry between the Times and the Post has a long, colorful history As recounted in Chalmers Roberts’s 1977 book The Washington Post: The First 100 Years, when the Times published a condescending item in 1900 about longing for “the rudeness of New York” after spending some time in “amiable and inefficient Washington,” the Post replied: “No doubt. The pig returns to his wallow.”
After years of striving, the Post emerged on an equal footing with the Times over the constitutional crisis sparked by the publication of the Pentagon Papers. The Post captured the public’s imagination in a way the Times never had during and after the Watergate scandal. How could the Gray Lady possibly compete with a newspaper whose journalists were portrayed by movie stars like Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, and Jason Robards?
But the technological and cultural forces that have brought the newspaper business to its knees did considerably more damage to the Post than to the Times—that is, until Amazon’s Jeff Bezos bought the Post in 2013 and added about 100 journalists to its newsroom in a bid to transform the Post into a national digital newspaper.
Now, once again, the Post and the Times are genuine rivals. The Post’s executive editor, Marty Baron, and the Times’s, Dean Baquet, are longtime friends and competitors. Bezos said in a television interview that his goal was for the Post to become “the new paper of record,” a clear reference to the Times—and the Post took it a step further than even Bezos had by putting together an ad proclaiming itself already to be “America’s New Publication of Record.” The Post also moved ahead of the Timesin online readership, despite having a newsroom staff about half the size.
It is into this ancient conflict—once heated, then dormant, and now heating up again—that Margaret Sullivan and Jim Rutenberg have now been enlisted. This is going to be fun.
Among the odder aspects of Howard Kurtz’s very bad week (as reported by Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post) is the revelation that Daily Download, the thoroughly mediocre (at best) website with which Kurtz is more or less associated, received a $230,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, which funds innovative journalism projects. Here’s a Knight press release from March 2012.
Now, it’s certainly true that not all of Knight’s investments are going to work out, and that some of them will prove embarrassing. But it’s notable that Tom Stites, founder of the Banyan Project, a well-publicized effort to create a replicable new business model for community journalism based on co-op ownership, reports that Banyan’s Knight News Challenge applications have been turned down twice. (Banyan’s pilot site, Haverhill Matters, is due to be unveiled later this year.)
In February, Knight apologized for paying a $20,000 speaking fee to Jonah Lehrer, a so-called journalist who was hoping to revive his once-celebrated career after he’d been exposed as a plagiarist and a fabricator.
Knight does a lot of great work, so I hope Knight officials will step forward and explain their decision to fund Daily Download.
As for Kurtz, he enjoyed a long and impressive career before running into some serious bouts of carelessness during the past few years. I hope he’s able to bounce back. Earlier this evening he tweeted: “I just want to thank those who have posted or sent kind words and supportive comments in recent days. It means a lot when times are tough.”
Photo (cc) by David Shankbone and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.
In retrospect, the biggest problem with Howard Kurtz’s rant about the media’s overhyping Irene was that he was way too early. When I linked to him on Sunday afternoon, the storm clearly seemed to have fizzled — and the main question at the time was whether the media should have been more restrained, or if we were dealing with a genuinely threatening situation that just happened not to pan out. Then came the floods.
Yesterday, New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter and I appeared on “The Emily Rooney Show” on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) to discuss whether the media were guilty of overkill. Essentially we were in agreement: the non-stop coverage was too much and often silly; the fact that Irene veered away from Washington and New York City initially made it seem like the storm had been oversold; but given the devastation in Vermont, Upstate New York, Western Massachusetts and parts of New Hampshire, it turned out that the storm hadn’t be overhyped at all. (It was a great kick to share the stage for a moment with Stelter, whom I hugely admire. Here is his Monday story on the Weather Channel.)
The last word goes to Charles Apple (via Martin Langeveld), who mocks the hype theory with images of the reality on the ground. Irene was a major storm that will affect the region for months to come. It was, in some respects, every bit as bad as the predictions — just different.
Video above is from Brattleboro Community Television.
The media world is abuzz this morning over the merger of the Daily Beast and Newsweek, mainly because Tina Brown finds herself running a print magazine once again. I can’t get too excited. I never acquired the Beast habit, and I gave up on Newsweek years ago.
I will say that Brown’s announcement, in which she essentially awards Newsweek columns to Howard Kurtz and Peter Beinart, makes this move sound less than revolutionary, though I’ve got a lot of respect for Kurtz.
Brown’s a quirky, interesting editor, and maybe she can do something with Newsweek. But it won’t be Newsweek — that’s over.
Back in 1999, I wrote about Brown for the Boston Phoenix on the occasion of Talk magazine’s disastrous launch. What? You don’t remember Talk? Neither does anyone else.
I realize this sort of thing is happening all the time these days. Still, it seems noteworthy when a Washington Post fixture like media reporter Howard Kurtz up and quits in order to go over to the new-media side — in his case, to Tina Brown’s Daily Beast.
Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz has written as good a summation of the decade in media as you’re likely to find: a tremendous explosion in innovation and diversity; mind-boggling failures by the legacy media, especially during the run-up to the war in Iraq and their continued obsession with celebrity non-news; and the meltdown of the business model. Definitely worth a read.
I’ve got an essay in the current issue of Nieman Reports on the evolution of media criticism, from its roots in the work of A.J. Liebling and the alternative press to its current status as an Internet-fueled growth industry.
Hayes’ argument is that activists from ideological organizations such as Accuracy in Media on the right and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting on the left are more likely to bring about change than those whose mission it is to report on media institutions and write about their findings. As you might imagine, I disagree. I write:
At its best, media criticism — like all good journalism — is about digging out uncomfortable facts and telling them fearlessly. It is difficult to do well and, it shouldn’t be the critic’s job to bring about change. Truth is a rare enough commodity that it ought to be valued for its own sake.
Everyone is writing thumb-sucker pieces on John Edwards and the media. But I think Howard Kurtz perfectly nails how and why the media failed by giving him a months-long pass on news of his affair with Rielle Hunter:
The fact that big newspapers, magazines and networks have standards — that is, they refuse to print every stray rumor just because it’s “out there” — is one of their strengths. But in the latter stages of this case, it made them look clueless. Perhaps there is a middle ground where media outlets can report on a burgeoning controversy without vouching for the underlying allegations, being candid with readers and viewers about what they know and don’t know.
In the end, the much-derided MSM were superfluous, their monopoly a faded memory. People have hundreds of ways to obtain information in today’s instantaneous media culture, and are capable of reaching their own conclusions about what is reliable and what is not.
Kurtz also quotes chief Edwards inquisitor Mickey Kaus as saying that the chief reason the reporters laid off was out of solicitude for Elizabeth Edwards. But, as Kaus wrote, “If a politician whose chief appeal is his self-advertised loyalty to his brave, ill wife cheats on his brave ill wife, what’s he good for again?”
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen is ambivalent about doing interviews, and Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post asks him why. Kurtz, though, seems to think that the institution of the journalistic interview is more firmly established than it is. He begins:
The humble interview, the linchpin of journalism for centuries, is under assault.
In fact, what is widely regarded as the first newspaper interview was conducted not centuries ago, but in 1836, by New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett, who talked with the proprietor of a brothel in the hopes of shedding light on the notorious murder of a prostitute.
It seems strange to realize that great American journalists from Benjamin Franklin to Isaiah Thomas never interviewed people, but such were the customs of the day.