Located in Washington, DC, within eyeshot of the Capitol dome on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Newseum presents itself as the pinnacle of the press’s institutional might. The First Amendment is etched into the structure’s imposing stone facade. And visitors can absorb the power of journalism through countless media relics—1968 presidential-campaign buttons, former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee’s press pass, the first satellite news truck, and much more—across multiple floors.
In January 2016, the museum made a fitting location for an invitation-only gathering of more than 300 Pulitzer Prize winners toasting the awards’ centennial. But for all the self-importance that oozed from the Newseum that night, a pall of uncertainty hung over the media luminaries in attendance. As Jill Abramson recounts in the opening pages of her new book, Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts, “The party celebrated journalism’s golden age, but the celebrants were living through journalism’s Age of Anxiety.” The Internet had wiped out all the old ways of making a buck in the media, and many traditional outlets had slashed their staffs, scaled back their ambitions, and watched—often powerlessly—as their collective influence on public affairs waned. Adding to the trepidation was Donald Trump’s then still-improbable presidential bid and all the simmering media hatred it had activated.
“The threats to trust and authority were evident at the time of the Pulitzer party,” Abramson writes, “and by the time Trump assumed power the remains of any true common source of news and information for a broad swath of the American public [was] gone.”
Merchants of Truth recounts the divergent paths of four news organizations—The New York Times, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, and Vice—in response to the pressure. In this sense, by starting the journey at an exclusive cocktail party in Washington, Abramson shows her hand. “I surveyed the room with the eyes of an outsider,” the longtime Beltway journalist, former New York Times executive editor, and current Harvard lecturer writes. For Abramson, a quintessential insider, this posture of supposedly detached authority is key if journalism is to continue to carry a moral weight. And what she sees from her perch is nothing short of a crisis: a blurring of the so-called church-state divide between the news industry’s commercial and journalistic interests; a watering down of standards; and a shift in media power from the trained professionals in the Newseum to the masses outside of it.
“Everything these journalists cared about was under attack,” Abramson writes. “As they sipped wine in a cavernous museum devoted to their profession’s glorious past, the laurels that mattered were now quantitative: clicks and likes and tweets and page views and time of engagement.”
It’s the same horror show that many titans of the old guard have already described in black-and-white terms. Abramson’s interwoven narratives illustrate the stakes of the news industry’s fight to survive in this world. But she evaluates the strategies for doing so using some of the same assumptions that contributed to the predicament in the first place. The end result is a series of journalistic purity tests that no one could honestly pass, even if they wanted to.
BuzzFeed, that merchant of lab-tested likability, and Vice, a font of carefully manicured bad-boy counterculture, fashioned themselves as tastemakers for a millennial set that grew up online. “We started with cute kittens and internet memes and humor, because that’s where the social web was when the company started,” BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti recounted to Abramson. “Cats on the web aren’t about the cats. It’s about being human.”
While institutions like the Times and the Post attempted to maintain a pretense of authority on the Internet, the start-ups strove for the appearance of authenticity. They embraced issues and perspectives that the mainstream media had largely overlooked, meeting huge numbers of younger people in the digital spaces where they already hung out. In the new paradigm, the thinking went, trust and credibility came from talking with an audience rather than talking to it. That strategy made for a compelling sell to advertisers and investors, and Vice and BuzzFeed eventually built out professional newsrooms to give their content a more serious sheen.
Abramson consistently points out the inherent conflicts between these companies’ journalism and the hazily defined “native advertising” they produce for corporate sponsors. But whatever cringeworthy mistakes the young companies made editorially—BuzzFeed deleting posts after advertiser complaints, Vice treating war zones like punk-rock safaris—came alongside increasingly ambitious reporting on politics, culture, and foreign affairs. For a brief moment, just around the time Abramson was fired from the Times in 2014, it even appeared that the new players would overtake the old.
It’s hard to overstate the extent to which things have changed since then, particularly after Abramson attended that Pulitzer party in January 2016. The Times and the Post have regained stability by finally adapting to the Web and tilting their businesses toward subscriptions; meanwhile, as tech giants gobble up advertising growth, BuzzFeed and Vice have both announced plans to trim their staffs through layoffs and attrition this year, respectively. Perhaps more strikingly for digital publishers, it’s grown clear that the very platforms that catapulted them to great heights, including Facebook and YouTube, are designed to reward not journalism but rather fake news, faux outrage, and, ultimately, advertisers.
“There was not, in the end, some inherent virtue to the things that went viral,” Abramson writes. “And while concerned citizens could bemoan the onslaught of platform-savvy political spin-doctors and salesmen interfering in their news feeds, the constant mixture of real news and corporate messaging was a fact of the fluid new media world.”
The trend line in the world that Abramson describes points to media companies optimizing their work for whatever scraps of advertising revenue are left. The metrics of what sells will continue to supplant human judgment of what’s important. And unconcerned or oblivious citizens might fall prey to grifters and marketers even more often than they already do. There is plenty of truth to this dystopian narrative—particularly as local newspapers disappear—even if its genesis long predates social media. It is also true that the use of digital tools to capture stories and respond to audiences has in many case made journalism more dynamic.
Abramson’s frequent criticism of BuzzFeed and Vice seems to revolve around the fact that neither attempts to emulate the Abramson-era New York Times. BuzzFeed receives a nod as the rightful heir to the best traditions of tabloid journalism. But it’s also portrayed as a work program for entitled millennials pumping out meaningless ephemera. “BuzzFeed remained a strange stew of content,” Abramson writes. Even by 2018, after the site broke some of the biggest stories of the Trump era and earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination, its “claim to be a serious purveyor of news” was merely “within reach.”
Abramson’s credentialism applies to individual reporters as well. Arielle Duhaime-Ross, a correspondent for Vice News Tonight, called out the former Times editor in a widely circulated Twitter thread this month for mislabeling her as a trans woman in the review copy she’d seen. Abramson corrected the final version to identify Duhaime-Ross as gender non-conforming, but she still overlooks the latter’s previous journalism experience and academic study, and briefly mentions just a single story she reported. “[Vice co-founder Shane] Smith, as usual, was looking for authenticity, to attract a generation that could smell any hint of fakeness,” Abramson writes. The implication is that Duhaime-Ross was hired primarily because she fit a certain mold.
That background check contrasts starkly with Abramson’s careful excavation of how A.G. Sulzberger dutifully worked his way through the Times newsroom to become publisher. Sulzberger also fits a certain mold: His family has run the paper since 1896. The media scion helped author a 2014 “Innovation Report” that laid out how the Times had fallen behind digital competitors like Vice and BuzzFeed, among others, arguing that the paper should in some ways be more like them. Abramson writes that she saw the report as an “epic defeat” at the time, and soon after she was ousted in a tussle with Sulzberger’s father that she describes as at least partly motivated by sexism. Still, toward the end of her account, she praises the family’s visionary stewardship of an organization “in a class by itself.”
The irony of this conclusion came to the fore in the way that Abramson’s critique of the Times has already been wielded against it. Fox News zeroed in on a single passage from the book in which Abramson argues that the paper’s news pages “were unmistakably anti-Trump.” The clipped statement rocketed through right-wing media and all the way up to the president’s Twitter feed.
The evidence behind this apparently incendiary criticism? Abramson only writes that “some headlines contained raw opinion, as did some of the stories that were labeled as news analysis.” She goes on to describe the Twitter feeds of reporters Eric Lipton and Glenn Thrush as “vocal” and “snarky,” and outlines a divide between seasoned veterans and younger, “more woke” staffers “whose jobs were purely digital and did not involve any traditional reportorial work.” But Abramson provides no specific examples, let alone anything as fleshed out as her critique of the Times’ coverage of Hillary Clinton. Soon after making her offhand remark regarding the Times’ anti-Trump slant, she adds, “The news report as a whole had never been stronger.” Those two statements are not mutually exclusive—indeed, their relationship may be the predominant question facing political journalists today—yet Abramson, who herself depicts Trump as insidious, spends no time parsing this fact.
She’s similarly laudatory of the investigative reporting by the new-look Washington Post, while also casting it as “noticeably more partisan.” Abramson blames the latter on bloggers—namely Chris Cillizza and the Ezra Klein–inspired Wonkblog—and levels another supposedly devastating criticism soon after: “On some days the Post had as much clickbait as BuzzFeed,” she writes, and it “risked cheapening its brand with all the silly stuff and losing traditional readers.”
This is, in digital parlance, a hot take. There is little evidence to back it up. And that speaks to the fundamental tension in Abramson’s book: Are the real merchants of truth those who are prepared to see journalism as a living organism—one that’s cognizant of financial compromises, reflective of political reality, and responsive to cultural shifts? Or should they rather pay homage to at-times calcified ideals, as if journalism were nothing but a monument to better days? If the answer is the latter, general-admission tickets to the Newseum start at $24.95.