Veteran journalist Margaret Sullivan’s Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) from an Ink-Stained Life first appeared in hardcover a year ago. It was released in paperback this month, generally the sign of a successful run and a reason for new critical attention, like this very review.
But if you want to get the gist of Newsroom Confidential’s core dispute with the mainstream press—what Sullivan dubs the “reality-based media,” a term to which I’ll return momentarily—you could skip the book and instead read a few dozen words from one of her November columns.
Reflecting on then-fresh poll results showing former president Donald Trump edging out current president Joe Biden in key battleground states, Sullivan says Trump is on the verge of “making the United States an authoritarian regime,” so the media must “do its job better. The press must get across to American citizens the crucial importance of this election and the dangers of a Trump win. They don’t need to surrender their journalistic independence to do so or be ‘in the tank’ for Biden or anyone else.”
The trouble here, as in Newsroom Confidential, is never Sullivan’s skill as a writer. She has a varied and impressive career, enough that the reader should grant her the impulse to toot her own horn.
It’s a big horn, after all. Few can boast of having served as the public editor of The New York Times. Sullivan has worked, too, as a media critic for The Washington Post, the newsroom leader at The Buffalo News, and now, a columnist at The Guardian. She’s well-positioned to pen this kind of memoir, and I was eager to learn from her experience while comparing CT, journalistically, with these larger, secular players.
No, the problem with Sullivan’s case isn’t the writing but the case itself. While issuing a call to defend reality and democracy, she seems remarkably out of touch with the reality of our democracy and, specifically, the tens of millions of people within it who simply do not think as she does.
Her goals—accurate, transparent reporting; a media-canny citizenry; well-earned trust in the press; flourishing democracy—are admirable. But her explanations and remedies are strikingly out of touch.
‘And this is very bad’
Sullivan writes extensively in Newsroom Confidential of the 2016 and 2020 elections, finding significant fault in the mainstream press, first for helping Trump win and later for failing to pry his supporters away from him and his lies. In this telling, the media never scrutinized and deplored Trump enough to convince the public to deplore and reject him too.
The traditional media helped make “this democracy-threatening mess,” Sullivan writes, by
treating [election] denialists as legitimate news sources whose views, for the sake of objectivity and fairness, must be respectfully listened to and reflected in news stories. By inviting the members of Congress’s “insurrection caucus” on the Sunday broadcast–TV talk shows week after week. By framing the consequential decisions being made in Congress, including Trump’s second impeachment, as just another lap in the horse race of politics.
In sum, she writes, “Too many journalists couldn’t seem to grasp their crucial role in American democracy. Almost pathologically, they normalized the abnormal and sensationalized the mundane.”
Is this an accurate account? It’s wildly divergent from my recollection of late 2020 and early 2021. Sullivan was on staff at The Washington Post at the time, so let’s have a look at some Post headlines from that period, some from reported stories and some from opinion pieces:
- September 9, 2020: Trump’s unforgiveable sin: His covid-19 lies killed Americans
- September 23, 2020: Trump won’t commit to a ‘peaceful transfer of power’ if he loses
- October 28, 2020: Trump’s attacks on political adversaries are often followed by threats to their safety
- November 5, 2020: Trump’s White House statement: Falsehood upon falsehood
- November 10, 2020: The abnormal presidency
- November 19, 2020: Trump uses power of the presidency to try to overturn the election and stay in office
- December 11, 2020: I was wrong about Trump. He won, and he broke us.
- December 20, 2020: How Trump drove the lie that the election was stolen, undermining voter trust in the outcome
- December 21, 2021: ‘A real mess’: Trump is leaving behind crises and undermining Biden before he takes office
- January 6, 2021: Trump caused the assault on the Capitol. He must be removed.
- January 7, 2021: The four-hour insurrection: How a Trump mob halted American democracy
- January 7, 2021: The grand finale of the Trump show: America watches farce devolve into horror
- January 13, 2021: Trump’s second impeachment was the most bipartisan one in history
- January 18, 2021: The Trump presidency was marked by battles over truth itself. Those aren’t over.
- January 24, 2021: Trump’s false or misleading claims total 30,573 over 4 years
- February 12, 2021: Trump’s ‘Big Lie’ was bigger than just a stolen election
- February 13, 2021: Trump acquitted on impeachment charge of inciting deadly attack on the Capitol
I could list more—so many more. But how many do you need? The point couldn’t have been clearer unless editors had tacked “and this is very bad” to the end of every headline.
The Post was no outlier. Contra Sullivan, the mainstream press painstakingly detailed Trump’s every abnormality and immorality. If the president and his congressional allies still got ample attention amid their most egregious behavior, well, they were the president and his congressional allies. They held power. They already had the ear of millions. Keeping your talk show untainted by the “insurrection caucus” doesn’t make the caucus disappear. Refusing to publish Tom Cotton’s “Send In the Troops” op-ed doesn’t make Cotton, a sitting senator, stop thinking that’s a good idea.
Sullivan’s recollection of mainstream opprobrium about Trump isn’t all that’s distorted. So is her conception of the American public, which she seems to imagine as far less fractured than it is. She once muses that figures in the Watergate hearings were as “familiar to us as the characters of The Sopranos, or later still, Mare of Easttown, would be to [later] generations.”
But ratings for these three broadcasts prove the opposite of her point: An estimated three in four households watched some part of the hearings, while The Sopranos averaged 11 million viewers at its peak. Only one Mare episode topped 2 million.
The reason Trump has a large base of loyal supporters, many of whom continue to believe the 2020 election was stolen, isn’t that the mainstream media failed to adequately condemn him. They did condemn him. But, maybe more important, their condemnation never mattered to that base.
‘But her emails’
Sullivan’s main allegation for 2020 is a sin of omission, but in 2016, she sees a sin of commission against Hillary Clinton. “I don’t believe [The New York Times], as an institution, was trying to get Trump elected or cause Clinton to lose,” she writes in one remarkable line. But she endorses a reader’s claim that the Times and other mainstream outlets normalized Trump and demonized Clinton, particularly in coverage of the Clinton Foundation and (in Sullivan’s grudging phrase) “the email scandal, if that’s what it really was.”
It’s not wholly clear what Sullivan believes should’ve happened here. She doesn’t deny that these stories were newsworthy, and—aside from a well-grounded objection to anonymous sourcing—doesn’t pick apart the actual reporting. Much of her dissatisfaction comes down to matters of framing and print layout, as well as how the Timesreporting became “delicious catnip for right-wing politicos and their media allies.” Her apparent solution is giving the stories fewer words and a less prominent placement in the Times: a spot on D5, say, instead of A1.
But this too is out of touch with reality. Clinton’s enemies would’ve found anything politically damaging to her no matter how few words the story got or how deeply it was buried in print. Google news alerts exist, and Fox News reporters know about them! They might’ve reported the story themselves if the Times hadn’t gotten it first.
As with the suggestion that reprehensible politicians be ignored, Sullivan seems to operate out of desire more than fact. She clearly wishes then–FBI director James Comey hadn’t made his infamous announcement, days before the 2016 election, that he was reopening an investigation into Clinton. But the fact is he did it, and it was newsworthy by virtue of his position and hers. He may deserve censure, but he could hardly be ignored.
And as with the claim that Trump wasn’t adequately scrutinized and critiqued, Sullivan misjudges the influence of mainstream journalism on the public.
She avers that the “media’s endless emphasis on Clinton’s email practices doomed her campaign perhaps more than any other factor” (emphasis mine). But, just a few pages later, she presents a Pennsylvania construction worker in a dive bar who names “his news sources as local TV and ‘whatever pops up on my phone.’” He’s one of many interviewees who “just didn’t care much about the news, shrugged off the implications of a Trump presidency, and seemed uninterested in following the news closely or critically, except for those who hated the press.”
These people didn’t base their voting decisions on subtle analyses of the Times’s framing and layout choices. The bar interview is illustrative, but the picture is not what Sullivan thinks.
‘Reality’ and ‘democracy’
I promised to return to the phrase “reality-based media,” and now I will, as it is perhaps the crux of the matter.
“Americans no longer share a common basis of reality,” Sullivan writes. This is right, and so is wanting to regain that basic agreement. But it’s difficult to conceive of that mission being accomplished with a phrase so unwittingly smug and epistemically blinkered as “reality-based media” (in a book without endnotes or any other formal citations, no less). Of course, media should be reality-based—but “reality-based media” is part of the problem.
Almost no one of any political persuasion will tell you they don’t care about reality. It’s true that many of us have lost our feel for truth, but that’s not the same as not caring to know it. We disagree about what is true, and we too often lack the skills to discern truth, particularly in chaotic, high-stakes public conversations. (In Christians, this is a grave matter of discipleship and intellectual formation.) But that is not the same as apathy.
“It sickens me that people like you post lies and deception to the public,” begins one angry reader email Sullivan received at the Post. “This article has no right to be printed to the public.” Sullivan calls the email “nasty” and apparently intends it as a shocking example of what the “reality-based media” is up against. And yes, this angry reader might well be deceived and certainly doesn’t have Sullivan’s research skills. But the email’s phrasing doesn’t signal lack of concern for truth. It signals deep concern, however misguided the author’s conclusions may be.
We won’t stand much hope of developing a “common basis of reality” unless we recognize that concern in our political rivals. Differing views of reality can be sincerely, intelligibly, and even sympathetically held. And difficulty navigating our chaotic information environment isn’t evidence of ill intent. But “reality-based media” assumes only one side cares about reality and therefore has permission to both claim its name and dismiss opponents as reprobates or retrograde idiots analogous—per Sullivan’s explicit comparison—to flat earthers.
Unfortunately, Sullivan’s media reforms for the sake of democracy have the same deficit of imagination. She envisions a “legitimate public” (my phrase, not hers) of people like her and gives proposals they’ll find appealing, like increasing demographic diversity in newsrooms and creating government subsidies for struggling outlets. Then there’s everyone else, who—despite comprising one third to one half of the demos, depending on how you count—are all but dismissed as a threat to democracy.
The single most revealing section on this front is Sullivan’s recounting of another editor’s imaginary archetypal reader, Sweeney, “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 to see what it had to say. [The editor] kept him in mind when he made news decisions: What would Sweeney think?”
For her part, Sullivan seems to have little use for Sweeney. She instead directs mainstream reporters to look to “publications with a clear political perspective,” pointing to the progressive magazine Mother Jones as a desirable model. There’s nothing wrong with publications having a perspective—CT certainly does. Nor does that preclude honest reporting with a high regard for truth. But the notion that Americans would be closer to agreeing on reality if straight news reporters at The New York Times acted more like Mother Jones is laughable.
Early in Newsroom Confidential, Sullivan tells of meeting Clinton, then a Senate candidate, at the Buffalo News. “We chatted [in] a walk-and-talk scene out of The West Wing, and I could feel the newsroom staff’s eyes on us,” Sullivan recalls. “Hillary, always well prepared and knowledgeable, made a point of observing to me that there weren’t many top newspaper editors in the nation who were women. I appreciated that she knew such a thing, and her observation accomplished what perhaps it was intended to do: give me a sense that we had something in common as groundbreakers.”
Elsewhere, Sullivan writes of Clinton with more journalistic distance. But notice here the address: “Hillary.”
There are two kinds of people I’ve observed habitually calling Clinton by her first name. One is her despisers, people who spit out “Hillary” to connote her symbolism of all they believe is rotten in the Democratic Party. The other is her admirers, people “in the tank” for Clinton, especially women who see her less as politician than icon.
For all her protestations of independence, I’d venture to place Sullivan in that latter category. She urges mainstream journalists to get “out of the inside-the-Beltway mentality,” but what could be more inside-the-Beltway than happily comparing a meet-cute with a former first lady, senator, secretary of state, and presidential nominee to The West Wing? What could be more “in the tank” than slamming the Times for rigorously scrutinizing Clinton, then praising the Post for rigorously scrutinizing Trump? Sullivan’s journalistic principles are solid, yet somehow, she doesn’t see how this handling of Clinton would for many Americans contribute to the very distrust of media she bemoans.
“That’s the odd thing about reporting,” Sullivan observes toward the end of Newsroom Confidential. “You never know what will happen when you put the truth out there in real time. … And it’s not your job to make that calculation. It’s your job to dig it out and to tell it straight.” So it is—even if it’s bad news for “Hillary.”
Bonnie Kristian is the editorial director of ideas and books at Christianity Today.