Book review of “Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) from an Ink-Stained Life” by Margaret Sullivan


This should have been Margaret Sullivan’s victory lap.

It’s hard to think of anyone who’s met and mastered more challenges with more aplomb and journalistic integrity than The Washington Post’s former media columnist: Starting as a summer intern at the tiny Niagara Gazette in the late 1970s (where she had a ringside seat to the environmental disaster at Love Canal), Sullivan rose methodically through the ranks to become the first female editor in chief of her hometown paper, the Buffalo News. She helped diversify the paper’s editorial staff, putting people of color in leadership roles and taking pains to mentor younger women.

Then she headed to the New York Times to assume the deliberately awkward (and since abolished) post of public editor, assigned to question, investigate and police the organization from inside its ranks. Coming from Buffalo, Sullivan didn’t exactly blend right into the Times’ rarefied culture. “Jill is an uptown girl. You’re not,” David Shribman, a journalist who worked at both the Buffalo paper and the Times, said of Jill Abramson, who was the top editor at the Times when Sullivan arrived there. “Over nearly four years in the job, I never had a completely comfortable day as public editor,” Sullivan writes.

Honorably, she departed when she felt the camaraderie of the newsroom threatening her critical perspective. “I was starting to lose the outsider’s mentality,” she says. At The Post, Sullivan was assigned to cover the media at large, but she didn’t hesitate to bite the hand that fed her. At one point, she even turned on one of her teen idols. Sullivan, who says Watergate inspired her to get into journalism, castigated Bob Woodward for waiting for the publication of a book to reveal important details on what President Donald Trump knew about the coronavirus pandemic and when he knew it.

It’s hard to argue with Sullivan’s news judgment: Last year, she publicly scolded leaders of the nation’s leading news organizations for failing to follow up on another scoop that Woodward scored with writing partner Robert Costa — the now-infamous memo by lawyer John Eastman outlining plans to get Trump a second term he did not win. Who’s sorry now? (Sullivan left The Post in August to take up a visiting professorship at Duke University.)

Given all this, you might expect Sullivan’s book, “Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) From an Ink-Stained Life,” to be a reminiscence of her professional triumphs and a reflection on their larger meaning for the industry. While she’s particularly accomplished in her field, Sullivan is not an isolated phenomenon. The news business of today is much more diverse and publicly self-critical than the old boy’s network she and I had to wheedle our way into back in the day.

So why, having empowered and platformed establishment-challenging change-makers like Sullivan, is the news business in such a state of disarray and disrespect? And how does it get its voice of authority back?

Those are the questions that haunt the pages of “Newsroom Confidential.” The title suggests a gossipy tell-all, and there’s a heaping dollop of that. (Memo to a certain New York Times sports editor: You might want to look for a bunker, and I don’t mean along a fairway.) But if Sullivan started out intending to write a memoir, she ended up with a manifesto. This is a book about the role of the press in a democracy that’s in grave jeopardy.

Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, The Post’s media columnist did something that might surprise those who dismiss journalists as out-of-touch elites. Turning down invitations to speak in a slew of European capitals about what Trump’s election meant, she instead took up a reader’s challenge to get out of “your liberal bubble.” Not that Sullivan really needed to: She grew up in Buffalo in the shadow of a hulking steel mill that, she writes, would turn skies “electric coral” when the slag was dumped at night. Though her dad was a lawyer, the town’s blue-collar ethos clearly shaped Sullivan’s sensibility. She spent her formative years in a newsroom where she had to tolerate nicknames like “Marge” and “Sully.” One of her early mentors, the managing editor of the Buffalo paper, would evaluate stories by asking, “What would Sweeney think?” Sweeney, Sullivan explains, was “an imaginary character … presumably a working-class guy sitting on his front porch in Irish Catholic South Buffalo, cracking open a Labatt Blue and picking up The Buffalo Evening News.”

Sullivan’s reporting tour of small towns in northwest Pennsylvania and western New York took her to places that should have felt familiar. She meandered into saloons packed with plenty of Sweeneys. Only now, they were telling her that the 9/11 attacks were arranged by the U.S. government, that the 2012 massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School never happened and that journalists who report otherwise “get paid to be wrong.”

Sullivan felt her world lurching off its axis.

A considerable part of “Newsroom Confidential” is about how, ever since Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2015, journalists have been struggling to adapt. In an era when a former president and his acolytes routinely traffic in Orwellian funhouse distortions of reality, journalism’s standard operating procedures — carefully finding stakeholders in a controversy and balancing the viewpoints of one against the other — clearly haven’t been cutting it. How are you supposed to “balance” sources when some are patently unreliable?

You shouldn’t, Sullivan has concluded.

“American journalists should be putting the country on high alert, with sirens blaring and red lights flashing. The legitimate press should be trying to figure out how best to rise to his historic challenge,” she writes. “But too many journalists — worried about their reputations for neutrality, under pressure from corporate bosses, and mired in their comfortable traditions — are still doing their jobs the same old way. It’s not good enough.”

Many journalists are coming around to the view that, in the current environment, the traditional way of doing things can be an outright obstacle to truth-telling. One of my favorite dissections of how this happens comes from the Guardian’s Australia editor, Lenore Taylor. After watching a 2019 Trump news conference live, she demonstrated how journalists’ “necessary” editing of the former president’s “skittering, half-finished sentences” made him sound more coherent than he actually is.

So, some journalists and news organizations are blowing up the usual playbook.

Sullivan cites a number of examples that she covered for The Post: the Philadelphia Inquirer deciding not to use the word “audit” to describe a Republican attempt to cast doubt on the results of the 2020 presidential vote in Pennsylvania; a Harrisburg, Pa., radio station announcing that it would routinely remind its audience which state legislators joined an effort to reverse that election’s outcome; and, sadly, longtime Associated Press congressional reporter Andrew Taylor’s decision to walk away after watching the desecration of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

“The objective-journalism version of events can often obscure the reality of what’s really going on,” Taylor told Sullivan. “It sanitizes things.”

Trumpism isn’t the only challenge facing the news business. Sullivan’s career tracks a critical arc of journalism history.

When she became editor of the Buffalo News in 1999, newspapers were riding high. Ad revenue was five years away from its peak of nearly $50 billion. But the seeds of sweeping change were beginning to germinate. In August 1999, the Blogger publishing service launched, a key development in a software revolution that empowered a new class of citizen journalists. A few months later, the online service provider AOL shocked the world by buying blue-chip legacy media company Time Warner. Oh, and 1999 was also the year a New York tabloid personality named Donald Trump briefly made his first run for president — on the Reform Party ticket.

By the time Sullivan departed Buffalo, the media world had completely changed. By 2012, the year she became the public editor at the Times, Facebook had 1 billion users worldwide and was in the process of swallowing up the photo-sharing service Instagram. The following year, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos would buy The Washington Post.

Less visible but perhaps equally important to the crisis of trust in journalism that confronted Sullivan on her post-inaugural reporting tour: As The Post’s Dan Balz wrote in an essay to mark the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, the pantheonization of investigative reporting created a kind of gotcha culture that bred mistrust in government and, ultimately, journalism.

“Everyone wanted to kind of have a pelt on the wall,” historian Rick Perlstein told Balz. “Every reporter wanted their own kind of scandal. And one of the consequences was a tendency to elevate peccadilloes to the status of scandals.”

It’s hard not to see the link to the coverage that prompted Sullivan’s sharpest criticism of the Times — the paper’s fixation-to-the-point-of-sabotage with Hillary Clinton. Sullivan is blunt: She doesn’t think the former secretary of state, who won the popular election in 2016 but lost the electoral college vote to Trump, got a fair shake. She believes the Times overhyped the controversy over Clinton’s emails while downplaying the possibility that foreign interests were trying to elect her opponent.

“The Times had certainly treated the FBI’s two investigations of the 2016 presidential candidates very differently,” Sullivan writes. “It shouted one from the rooftops and on Trump and Russia the paper used its quiet inside voice, playing right into the Republican candidate’s hands.” She describes the Times, along with a number of other leading news organizations, scrambling for rights to “exclusives” from a campaign-eve book purporting to unearth fresh scandals about Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton. The book’s author, Peter Schweizer, was a partisan with known ties to Republican strategists and funders. Sullivan attributes the Times’ fixation on scoring Clinton exposés to an error in news judgment: Assuming that Trump couldn’t win and Clinton would be the next president, the paper reserved its most gimlet-eyed scrutiny for her.

For those outside the news business, post-mortems like this should be the most important revelation in “Newsroom Confidential.” It should reassure the public to know that people in newsrooms argue with one another and doubt themselves on a daily basis. This kind of loud, constant examination of consciences is a vital part of the effort to be fair and honest and genuinely reflective of the communities in which we live.

But these kinds of candid conversations become impossible when they turn into public purges. And that’s another one of journalism’s existential crises to which Sullivan’s book bears witness.

The evil genius of the poison that Trumpism has loosed into the American body politic is that it unleashes a desire to respond in kind: to fight hyperbole with hyperbole, reputational vandalism with reputational vandalism. While Sullivan describes herself as generally on “the side of what was disparagingly and falsely called the ‘woke mob’” in newsroom debates over standards, she’s uncomfortable with the righteous wrath that has driven a number of well-known journalists, such as James Bennet and Donald McNeil at the Times and Stan Wischnowki at the Philadelphia Inquirer, out of jobs for errors in judgment.

Dutiful Catholic girl that she was raised to be, Sullivan struggles to end her book on a note of gratitude and positivity. But her anecdote arguing for the redemptive power of feature writing rings more than a little hollow. A better summing up might be the quote from W.B. Yeats that Sullivan invokes after the reporting tour where so many people told her they no longer believed in fact-based, public-service journalism:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

The verse is from “The Second Coming,” one of the Irish poet’s many commentaries on his own country’s cultural and class wars. It could stand as an epitaph for this discomfiting book — and the unfinished history of this discomfiting age.

Kathy Kiely is the Lee Hills chair in free-press studies at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Lessons (and Worries) From an Ink-Stained Life

St. Martin’s. 272 pp. $28.99

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