Merchants of Truth — a review

I bought this book almost as soon as it came out (and before the controversy over plagiarism really kicked off). It had rave reviews, including in the FT and it dealt with issues that I am both deeply interested in and concerned about. If you have not heard about it, Merchants of Truth is an ‘insiders view’ of the struggle between traditional newspapers and digital news sites written by former New York Times editor, Jill Abramson. Specifically, it tracks the varied fortunes of The New York Times, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed and Vice over the last decade or so. More broadly it sets out to describe the state of journalism today and investigate what has led us to this situation.

The early chapters of the book, which is divided into three ‘phases’ for each of the 4 brands, are an interesting and insightful history of the early days of digital disruption in the media. The innovative leaps of faith taken by Buzzfeed and Vice, and the balancing acts attempted by print media are well illustrated.

Technology plays a significant role in this, but many of the forces at work were present before tech accelerated the process.

However, I have to say that overall I was disappointed. For me the book did not live up to its billing and was not really about the news revolution.

It is unabashedly about the US media. It is perhaps an unfair criticism, considering the origins of the book, but in today’s globalised world I did find it annoying that, other than the vary occasional mention of The Guardian (where Abramson now writes), the rest of the world’s media are totally overlooked. I think this matters because there are global examples (including The Guardian, Daily Mail and BBC in the UK) that have made better efforts to embrace digital than Abramson’s exemplars of world-leading journalism the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Recent criticism has focused on the lack of transparency in referencing other people’s work and opinion in the book. I did not notice the specific examples, but did find the whole book to be littered with unsubstantiated claims and opinions expressed as fact. For a book that is meant to be about truth and transparency this is a significant shortcoming. Whether or not plagiarism took place the system of end-notes was not successful for me, it was far too hard to find references which themselves were often just links to other articles from which the reference came.

I found myself highlighting numerous phrases that seemed to be inaccurate or unsupported. For example, Abramson often claims that ‘the trust of readers had been shaken’ or similar, but without referencing any hard data to support the assertion. Others points seemed oddly loose and sometimes immoderate in their phrasing — for example describing psychometrics as an emerging field in 2017 when it has been around since at least the 1950’s, and in describing the whole of Pakistan as ‘a hotbed of Islamic terror’. She also calls out Russia’s ‘prism’ tool for snooping on social media — which is at best confusing without disambiguating it from the US government’s PRISM tool. These missteps undermine her credibility as an accurate correspondent in my eyes.

Perhaps most alarming is the poor quality of writing. Editing a national newspaper is certainly different from writing a factual book, but clarity is key to both. I found Abramson’s writing style to be repetitive, confusing and meandering. For example, she mentions the price of a full-page ad in the New York Times ($100,000) no less than three times in the first 50 pages for no apparent reason. She provides lots of detail and examines some aspect of her subject matter with forensic attention, but then skates over important themes with little comment. On many occasions, I found myself losing the narrative thread as a result. The middle section of the book is so focused on her own experience at the New York Times, that unless you are an avid student of the comings and goings of US editors it is probably worth skipping.

Sadly, the book spends comparatively little time on the ‘News Revolution’ itself, and when it does more often favours the attitude of the conservative forces resisting revolution rather than embracing it. Perhaps this is the problem. Whilst Abramson suggests she’s ready to adopt and adapt to the digital era, you feel that deep down she wishes it would all go away. She seems to hanker after the days when the editor of the New York Times decided what was important and graciously let his readers in on it.

News media has an important function in society — holding power to account, uncovering inconvenient truths and keeping people informed on issues that matter. The firewall between editorial and commercial is also important, but these positions cannot be held as absolutist.

The established media houses should play this role, and still have legacy brand equity to do so. Some are. But the days in which one or two powerful editors can set the agenda for the day are gone — and rightly so. Old and new media must compete to deliver relevant and important information in the ways that people choose to consume it. It should be shareable, and entertaining as well as accurate and true.

What is really important, and not covered in the book, is the need to educate people about how to assess the media and the news they consume. My daughter often comes down to breakfast knowing they key news of the day thanks to Snapchat. I think it’s great that she can keep herself informed using a media channel that is natural and native to her. However, I do ask her to question the sources. If she’s excited by the thought of man travelling to Mars because of an article she’s read, that’s great, but I also want her to understand that if that article is sponsored, supported or written by SpaceX she might need to question some of the assertions made.

Surely, this is the heart of the issue. Knowing who is behind an article (be it the New York Times or BuzzFeed) will influence your perspective on what you are being told. Technology has made it harder to do that sometimes — but the response should be to better educate ourselves to deal with this, rather than try and return to some imagined golden age where you could always trust everything in the newspaper.

Transforming complex messages into powerful communications. Ben writes at the crossroads of tech, politics and society.

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