Book of the week
Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts
Abramson: A role model stumbles.
(Simon & Schuster, $30)
Plagiarism would be a career-ending offense for many a cub reporter; for Jill Abramson, it’s “utterly inexcusable,” said Erik Wemple in WashingtonPost.com. The former top editor of The New York Times attracted the worst kind of attention for her new state-of-journalism treatise last week when she was caught having included passages lifted almost verbatim from other sources. She has since admitted the mistake—and some reporting errors as well. But for a person who presents herself as a pillar of journalistic rectitude and who was reportedly paid $1 million to share her take on the beleaguered industry, the apologies were insufficient. At least she stole only brief passages of workmanlike prose, said Kyle Smith in NationalReview.com. Judged against other accused plagiarists, “Abramson is a gum thief, not a Ferrari thief.” Still, in context, “all this is pretty funny.”
Abramson is no stranger to controversy, said Nicholas Thompson in The New York Times. After becoming the first woman to run the Times’ newsroom in 2011, she was fired three years later, accused of being “difficult.” That experience features prominently in her portrait of the Times—one of four news organizations she focuses on here—and she admits that the man who fired her, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., had been more prescient about how to adapt to the digital age than she had been. But Merchants of Truth spends almost as much time scrutinizing how The Washington Post, BuzzFeed.com, and Vice Media have managed the business challenges that have proved fatal to magazines and newspapers across the country, and because Abramson has dug up a lot of inside dirt, the book is “a damn good read.”
“The gossip is great,” said Annalisa Quinn in NPR.org, as is Abramson’s sensitive analysis of the business hurdles these outfits face. “Even so, she makes a surprising number of errors,” especially when she focuses on the upstarts. Vice and BuzzFeed deserve some blame for compromising standards: Vice, we’re told, receives 90 percent of its income from sponsored content—stories paid for by advertisers. But Abramsom is wrong to scorn the young, diverse journalists at Vice and BuzzFeed as underqualified, especially given the uncritical reverence she displays for Times reporters and editors raised in newspaper families. Abramson “seems to see the world in black and white: new versus old, mercenary versus honorable, advertising versus editorial. People are either allies or enemies.” Unfortunately, reality is “rarely that simple,” and a person who can’t see that is bound to have trouble reporting the truth. ■