The sensational implosion of the 20th-century American press was precipitated by a combination of hubris and negligence. The press suffered from what might be understood as the formal characteristics of a personality disorder, a set of rigid beliefs and actions resulting in a pattern of familiar self-destruction—the same affliction of myopic arrogance that led to the demise of the music industry and network television. The pillars of U.S. print journalism believed themselves and their business models to be invincible, the exclusive purveyors of a cultural product so tightly ingrained into the social fabric that to suggest a hint of their vulnerability was to call into question democracy itself. By 2017 newspapers had lost $32 billion of their $48 billion in annual advertising revenue. Hundreds of thousands of news professionals lost their jobs—only some of whom were replaced by social media types.
Those who make culture are inevitably ruined by power and money. Regarding the former, the prestige press of the second half of the 20th century overindulged in the thrill of making news, shaping the national conversation, and generally imagining themselves to be people of great importance—even toppling a perverse president and his henchmen during Watergate. Journalism’s rank and file never became rich, though who cares about money when you can take down the leader of the free world. Moreover, as they monopolized local ad markets, postwar newspapers did well financially. The revenues accumulated by their owners instilled newsrooms with the same assumed financial security one feels when growing up with family money.
And so, the entitled scions of the great objectivist social project of American journalism lost their way. When the business of journalism collapsed under the sweaty keystrokes of Facebook and Google, who swiped their ad revenue, and Craigslist, which took the classifieds, the legacy American press revealed that their attachment to the social and cultural cachet of “journalism” was much greater than the hard work of social accountability and connection to readers. Hemorrhaging money, most news outfits kept up appearances rather than admit to poor decision making. They pretended that 26-year-old stringers were actually reporters, and that the stories they “reported” weren’t being fed to them by a new class of partisan, bureaucratic, and corporate operatives, whose fierce and consequential warfare now took place largely out of sight.
The propensity to put personal vanity above any honest attempt to wrestle with unpleasant truths runs throughout Jill Abramson’s Merchants of Truth, the latest attempt by a preeminent journalist to diagnose the long economic and cultural decline of their own industry. Abramson, the former executive editor of The New York Times, explains the inspiration for the book’s conceit in her intro: She wished to modernize the template deployed by David Halberstam in his 1976 The Powers That Be, a hybrid work of cultural criticism and literary reportage that explored corporate media’s capacity to shape American politics and mainstream discourse in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
Mimicking Halberstam’s quad-line narrative, which cycles through chapters dedicated to The Washington Post, LA Times, Time magazine, and CBS News, Abramson wants to explain America’s current sociopolitical moment by alternating sections on The New York Times, Washington Post, BuzzFeed, and VICE. But where Halberstam offered nuanced character portraits and occasionally syrupy scenes to show the thoughts, behaviors, and burgeoning self-indulgence of the mid-century media makers who ran booming print news, magazine, and broadcast operations, Abramson has foregone the labor of building out characters or scenes of any substance. Instead, she has dashed off what might be seen as an appropriately poorly reported and haphazardly rendered swan song for an era of pre-internet newsmaking that once was and will certainly never again be.
An investigative reporter with a knack for scoops, Abramson “had won a reputation for my tough coverage of money and politics.” She held the powerful to account over a decade in the Washington bureau at The Wall Street Journal, and then in the late ’90s at The New York Times, where she rose swiftly up the masthead until she became Bill Keller’s second in command, as the first female managing editor in the paper’s history. When Keller retired in 2011, Abramson became the paper’s first and only female executive editor, until she was unceremoniously fired in 2014. Yet Abramson has not wavered in her dedication to the Times. “It was still my religion,” she concludes.
David Halberstam made his name at the Times, too, winning a Pulitzer at the age of 30 for his Vietnam reportage. But he only briefly features the Times in his book because, he said, “I did not want to write at length about an institution where I worked and about which my own feelings were so personal and ambivalent.”
Abramson is stuck here between fully committing to Halberstam’s nearly Times-less approach and embracing her own unique and unprecedented vantage point within the paper of record. In chunks of her sections on the Times, Abramson does drop the pretense of the Objective Reporter for the occasional first-person experience in the Times building during perhaps the most tumultuous period in the history of the American news business since the birth of mass-circulation dailies in the late 19th century. Those first-person Times building passages are excellent, and there are just enough of them to undermine the thoroughly dull sections on the three other media operations where Abramson’s omniscient third-person voice is never convincing in either its omniscience or in the presentation of objective distance.
The failure of Abramson’s chosen narrative device is particularly acute when she talks about who she sees as the ethically dubious and undertrained media hooligans churning out digital web and video content for VICE and BuzzFeed News. Unable or unwilling to disentangle her sensibility from the relentless self-mythologizing of the Times, Abramson’s VICE narrative is notable for how fully her omni-third embodies the condescending obtuseness the Times routinely falls back upon when it’s obligated to report on Young Cool Things. VICE is cool. How cool? Really fucking cool.
“They were impossibly hip, with interesting hair,” Abramson writes of the magazine staff, in a third-generation Xerox of something snotty that Gore Vidal once said about someone. VICE serves up “hipster culture” to the “underground cultural scene.” When they had to pay rent, they “doubled down on catering to the cool kids.” Thankfully, the “hipsters loved it.” When new employees came on, they quickly learned that “the operative word was ‘cool,’” though that might have been obvious since everyone that worked there was “cool, funny, and unpredictable.”
With so much cool in the air it’s not hard to imagine why the VICE retail stores were so good at “selling cool stuff like skateboard gear.”
Certainly, the advertisers couldn’t get enough of VICE, what with their being “widely viewed as a fount of coolness” followed by “anyone who cared about what was cool.” As you can imagine, the cool kids made some good money, “charging advertisers for the cool points.” Truth be told, “VICE was scoring cool points like its business depended on it.”
There’s something desperate in the repetition of this banal adjective, which is also often used as a noun. What grown-up person is so fixated on the word “cool”? A character in a Gus Van Sant or Alexander Payne movie, perhaps—a suburbanite who is overinvested in being seen as interesting or sympathetic by her teenage children and their peers. The first time that character uses the word “cool,” we suspect they are faintly ridiculous, and by the third or fourth time, we can safely predict the snowballing disaster, as the protagonist thrillingly and horrifyingly runs amok, destroying her life, her neighbors’ lives, the entire town, etc. in a cavalcade of middle-aged narcissism. Abramson can’t stop using the word.
The penetrating cultural analysis on the lived experience of working and monetizing media at VICE carries over to Abramson’s investigation of the slightly less cool nerd-tech kids at BuzzFeed, her insights there wedged into little quasi-scenes that can be appreciated, maybe, for their brevity. On how the new media specimens pass their leisure time, Abramson writes, “They booted up the vintage Nintendo 64 video game console [and] launched into a spirited round of Super Smash Bros.,” with the pack leader “engulfing his opponents in fireballs.” On the daily ritual of aggregating breaking news: “From her gyroscopic desk chair, BuzzFeed’s reporter nimbly navigated to the tweets and other online accounts of the shooting by those who witnessed it firsthand. A few copy-and-pastes later, BuzzFeed had a gripping personal report ready to be published.”
Along with the rib-poke jokes written in pseudo-hardboiled newspaper-ese from the Carl Bernstein-Nora Ephron era—“BuzzFeed and VICE were giving the old guard serious competition, and heartburn”—Abramson makes perfunctory, surface observations about VICE and BuzzFeed so that she can then take aim at their business tactics and media production strategies. Her hostility seems emblematic of the frustration anyone in the Times must have felt while VICE and BuzzFeed challenged the elitism of legacy press while simultaneously ushering in the digital disembowelment of their business models.
What do those models actually tell us? VICE was launched in the ’90s by Canadian drug enthusiasts who deferred business matters to the financially savviest of the bunch, Shane Smith, an aspiring media mogul who took the group’s magazine of cocaine nipple pics and skate bro party punk culture and leveraged it with huckster aplomb into what is now, in a true sign of our times, a $6 billion empire run by a staff of 3,000 producing 7,000 daily pieces of “content.” Shane’s magic trick was in large part sheer luck, meaning timing. He came up right when the internet provided previously inaccessible platforms of distribution to small players. Figuring out that the core VICE product wasn’t actually the magazine but rather an anti-authority sensibility that he could pay a staff to commodify into a high-volume website and social media presence—with the payment coming in the form of club drugs, bar food, and the lowest wages in the industry. The result was a digital stream of attractive young people who wore American Apparel and exemplified the urban alternative lifestyle spectrum, which in turn attracted every lonely, outcast, and off-kilter kid with online access—an audience excluded by an out-of-touch and self-indulgent mainstream media.
Crucially, and of interest to Abramson, Smith got into internet video early, creating a library of VICE news and lifestyle coverage that became wildly successful on YouTube, which in turn earned VICE recurring programs on HBO—and Smith the opportunity to create luxury ads for his brand. With his web and video teams pumping out digital product, Smith became something of a corporate tollbooth operator collecting massive investments from the same entities VICE used as establishment foils, taking $70 million from 21st Century Fox, $200 million from Disney, and $250 million from A&E. Rightly, Abramson takes umbrage with the toxic disfunctionality of stoned skateheads managing an uncensored pipeline of sexually explicit content that often degraded women in a manner that was inevitably reflected in a workplace that was notoriously hostile and predatory toward its female employees. But that’s not her main beef with the dudes in Brooklyn.
VICE’s true crime, Abramson believes, was its attack on the foundation upon which legacy media had built its sense of entitlement. With the backing of HBO and Smith’s growing pile of money, VICE went hard on video content, broadening what Abramson identifies as a kind of pop culture hipster shtick into the realm of third-world political and war coverage. Abramson can’t help but condescend here in grown-up voice, noting how VICE’s move to provide its millennial audience hard news “was the strategic equivalent of a parent pretending the spoonful of veggies is an airplane flying loop-the-loops into the baby’s mouth.”
Abramson is critical of VICE’s lack of due diligence, producing news segments undermined by basic factual errors while also failing to widely implement the basic operating procedures of legacy broadcast productions, sending young correspondents to war torn nations without “ethical guidelines, security and safety rules, a fact-checking system, and training.”
It’s certainly possible that Abramson (and by proxy the Times) wouldn’t have cared much about what VICE and its correspondents in Africa and the Middle East did, if not for the upstarts giving their shit away for free to stock-market-traded social media platforms, which in turn provided them with huge online audiences. Bypassing traditional broadcast distribution methods, Smith and his correspondents provided YouTube a steady flow of binge-able content for a global audience of web savvy 18- to 35-year-olds, giving YouTube the views they needed to lure advertisers away from expensive television commercial slots. Smith, for his part, struck deals with Nike, AT&T, Intel, and other international brands that paid VICE many millions to access their desirable demographic: either by commissioning VICE to make native video and web advertising content, which looked just like normal VICE content, or with explicitly sponsored projects like a Bank of America video series that gave the corporation editorial authority of the broadcasts. Smith bought a $23 million mansion, lived lavishly, and took every opportunity to boast of how he built a billion-dollar media empire while legacy outlets were struggling to keep the lights on.
“Smith gloated as if it were due to some pearl of insight that eluded his old-school competitors, but in reality the suggestion that they should bamboozle their readers by blurring editorial content and ads had mainly repulsed them,” Abramson writes with the air of someone who never trifled with such depravities. “When as a managing editor of the Times I asked our digital ad director about native advertising, she recoiled, saying, ‘The Times would never do that. It’s so sleazy.’”
Of course, the Times would eventually become a leading purveyor of native advertisements themselves, while also operating tours to global hot spots like Iran—literally getting into business with authoritarian governments that the paper was supposed to be reporting on. But it didn’t have to be this way, Abramson argues, if only outfits like VICE and BuzzFeed had built their media businesses with the propriety and decorum of the Times. “The digital era had enshrined a new business model as the industry standard: places like VICE and BuzzFeed would give away their journalistic content for free to win adherents to the publisher’s brand identity, then use this leverage to present sales pitches for their sponsors’ sales pitches, soft-pedaling them to the same unsuspecting readers whose loyalty they had won.”
Much in the same way that VICE won the video-content war by partnering with YouTube, BuzzFeed rose to the top of the digital news media heap by getting into bed with Facebook. BuzzFeed began as the brain child of Jonah Peretti, a Huffington Post co-founder who helped that media company thrive by poaching content from other news companies, lightly rewriting it, and then gaming the Google algorithm with search engine optimization to win advertising dollars that should have but never did go to the original creators of that content. The media pirate ship that was HuffPo served as the ideal incubator for Peretti’s larger ambition, to create a media company that distributed content that “represents the simplest form of an idea … explainable in one sentence or less,” as Peretti put it to BuzzFeed’s investors. That simplified content would then become the perfect content serving size for Facebook’s emerging News Feed.
What follows in BuzzFeed’s narrative is drearily familiar stuff: They rose to success by aggregating photo and written content from other outlets, dumbed it down, redistributed it on Facebook; made original feel-good stuff like cat pic roundups and celebrity gossip posts and personality quizzes; like VICE they embraced native ad content with no hesitation, and sometimes published lowbrow clickbait to drum up metrics, like posts titled “YouTube Porn Hacks” and “Penis Size Chart”; they went big on data-tracking software to figure out what made people share BuzzFeed stories on Facebook, which they then harvested to create massive data profile sets that were like liquid gold to corporations clueless on how to reach the bored office workers of America who alleviated existential dread by scrolling away the hours on social media.
None of this is even remotely newsworthy. It’s all been widely and heavily documented many hundreds or thousands of times before, which is part of what makes Merchants such a slog. What would have made Abramson’s account interesting would have been if she had explained the rise of VICE, BuzzFeed, et al., explicitly and honestly from the viewpoint of the Times newsroom. It would be fascinating, if upsetting, to witness scenes of reporters or editors or business executives figuring out what this new media landscape meant for the leading newsroom in the nation, which was laying off reporters by the dozens while VICE was setting aside money in their party budget for drugs and celebrity DJs. Would we sympathize with Abramson and her colleagues in their bafflement and pain, or be aghast at their self-blinding hubris and regal recklessness?
Abramson only hints at the insecurities of a well-heeled set of media makers, unable to connect the warble in their reality to the news of their own self-destruction. The “newsroom was filled with Ivy League graduates, with especially large contingents from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton,” writes Abramson, herself a Harvard alum. “This wealthier, better educated newsroom was full of anxious overachievers,” but we’re never quite clear about how that anxiety, instigated no doubt by the shifting ground below their privileged feet, manifests itself in the daily workings of the Times. Rather, Abramson laments that her stint as the leader of the newsroom was unfortunately unlike “the world I grew up in,” when it was assumed as a matter of social fact that the Times was the unchallenged reliquary of American cultural commentary and political coverage, “the arbiter of the good, cultured life—the best books, the most important ideas, the best parties, and much more—for its readers.”
Ah yes, the reader. Finally. Perhaps Abramson and other leaders of legacy news operations did hold the relationship between journalists and their audience in sacred regard, but any reality that might support that feeling is not presented in any convincing fashion in Merchants. What is present here is a frustration that the Times was ultimately forced to shift its traditional business and editorial practices from print to the web, where the social media mob could dictate and influence the choices of what to cover and how, thereby usurping the inherited privileges of Times gatekeepers.
Abramson’s feelings of concern, while attempting to lead this shift from the news on the doorstep to the news on the web, and even as she rails at and then finally embraces the paper’s upstart digital competitors, never seem to extend to the reader. Her concern about the massive digitally driven cultural shift she portrays starts and stops with its effects upon the cultural dominance of the Times. This is not to say that Abramson doesn’t perhaps have genuine care for journalism’s role in a democracy, the potency and necessity of investigative journalists to hold the powerful to account. At least by her own telling, she continued to delegate resources to important investigative projects. She also prioritized a long overdue democratization of the newsroom with more minority and female hires, and ensured that the paper’s masthead would be staffed equally by men and women.
The funny thing about writing a really long book, though, is that your choices accumulate, and eventually give you away. All of Abramson’s strenuous effort to bring necessary and long-overdue changes to the Times—being competitive online; making the newsroom more egalitarian; keeping investigative news a top priority; fighting for editorial independence in an age of sponsored content—reads in Merchants as reflecting a deep concern about Abramson’s own reputation as a shepherd of the Times. For every instance of VICE’s unmistakable cool, there’s another declaration that the Times is “arguably the best news organization in the world.” Compared to the competition, “the Times was in a class by itself.” Though heavy is the head that wears the “crown as the prestige name in American journalism,” the Times, which “was clearly the best general-interest newspaper,” would still continue to produce “quality information, in which the Times surpassed the abilities of [other] media companies.”
Success for Abramson and her vision of the Times never seems to be about an authentic connection to the reader. In this model of journalism, creating news to shape the reader’s world is the means to achieve something else: the continuation of a privileged pedigree. Blinded by a myopic vanity that seems common to a particular subset of Ivy League achievers, Abramson boasts of finally achieving a “digital design [that] maintained an air of elegance and refinement.” Using the same type of digital publishing metrics that made BuzzFeed successful, the Times then started winning the internet. Soon they were home to their own social media savvy stars, staff journalists who became brands in their own right, who manufactured their own shoddy content, engineered to fixate an audience that is understood through their data profiles as a herd of consumers.
Abramson herself weirdly fixated on the celebrity status of Michael Barbaro, the host of The Daily, the morning Times podcast where he speaks to millions like they’re dull 12-year-olds. Although Abramson had once worried that this “new star system was poisoning the culture of the newsroom, and creating a caste system,” she is so effusively complimentary of Barbaro—“a star political reporter” and “bulldog” who, “at his brainy best,” is the “Platonic ideal of the new Timesman”—that it seems like she is desperate to absorb his internet celebrity cachet by associative flattery.
Because they’re now winning the same awards and recognition that Abramson and other old media covet for their connotations of cultural supremacy, Abramson eventually gives conditional and condescending credit to VICE and BuzzFeed. Having taken the requisite lumps from her hand, the two brands can now be judged to field legitimate news divisions, staffed by talented political, cultural, and general news and video journalists who produce, as she says without irony, “big-boy news, straight up and high stakes.”
Abramson celebrates a time when no structural forces of economics or distribution could challenge the superiority of The New York Times. That this pre-internet era also resulted in a more or less static consumer environment, where readers could simply read or watch the news and come to their own personal conclusions about what they encountered, was an adjacent if beneficial consequence. Now, all media is distributed, tracked, and optimized for a handful of social media platforms, where the audience is no longer comprised of independent people reading in solitude but rather digital avatars of those people. Today, success for new and legacy media companies alike means tailoring written and visual content not for actual people but for personality profiles that exist within a confined spectrum limited by the design of these publicly traded media platforms. It’s a video game, with media companies dropping quarters into a machine that someone else owns while competing for the high score.
Jill Abramson could have been honest about the decisions that led to our current mess. Instead, she chose to take a victory lap. Her choice is a revealing one. It explains why a generation of readers now looks elsewhere.
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