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Margaret Sullivan Can Only Indulge in So Much Nostalgia About Journalism

8 minute read

The title of Margaret Sullivan’s memoir, Newsroom Confidential, is a retro throwback to another time, one when the journalism business was more likely to produce zesty intrigue than existential despair. The cover has a chirpy visual style that evokes the opening credits of an early-‘60s film (think The Pink Panther), cut-and-paste that involves actual scissors and paper.

“It’s so funny you say that, because when I saw the sketches, that’s when I started to feel good about this book,” Sullivan says. “Because I was like, This designer just captured what I was doing.”

It helps that Sullivan is a bit of a throwback herself, a Lackawanna, N.Y., native drawn to journalism by the combination of civic duty generated by the Watergate scandal and by the movie, All the President’s Men, that made it glamorous. She worked her way up to editor at the Buffalo News, enjoyed the respect of journalism’s top tier signaled by service on the Pulitzer Prize Board, then made herself conspicuous at the New York Times.

Sullivan was the paper’s penultimate, and arguably most impactful “public editor,” or in-house critic. In clear-voiced posts and columns, she gonged her employer for allowing officials to vet quotes, for overindulging in unnamed sources, and for, as she puts it in the book, covering the campaign of Hillary Clinton as if she had already been elected and needed to be held to account. It was during her first months on the job that Sullivan questioned the wisdom of the Times hiring a CEO, Mark Thompson, who had run the BBC when it employed a sexual abuser of children. Small wonder that she writes, “I never had a completely comfortable day as Public Editor.”

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In 2017 the position, like so much about newspapers, was made redundant by the internet and eliminated entirely–though Sullivan writes that the Times publisher had offered her another couple of years in the job. Instead, she decamped to the Washington Post, starting work as a media columnist about a month before Donald Trump announced he was running for President. Newsroom Confidential might have been just another journalist’s rehash of stories–literally old news–except that the story in front of Sullivan was the struggle of the U.S. press to save itself and, maybe along with it, American democracy.

“The memoir sort of takes a turn into something that’s not really a memoir,” she says over lunch. “It’s more sort of about the industry.” A year ago, while she was well along in writing it, she saw a tweet from then Post book critic Carlos Lozada complaining about all the nonfiction “pitched as ‘part-memoir, part manifesto.’’’ Sullivan remembers thinking: “Carlos, hang on, because there is one more!”

Sullivan, then the media columnist at the Washington Post, during a conference in Chicago, on April 11, 2019.
Sullivan, then the media columnist at the Washington Post, during a conference in Chicago, on April 11, 2019.Taylor Glascock—The New York Times/Redux

We’re in Manhattan at a Lebanese deli she likes because it reminds her of the meals her grandmother cooked her. I tell her my idea for the rendezvous was the Museum of the City of New York, where an exhibit titled “Analog City” revives a vanished world of paper–one of the artifacts is the Rolodex from the Times’ National Desk–with an almost aching specificity.

“I am who I am, a creature of my era,” Sullivan shrugs. “There’s no way to get away from that. But I’m also a creature of the current era. Very much so.” She has 141,000 followers on Twitter and embraces the innovations wrought by the digital realm, from online newsrooms like the Marshall Project and the Texas Tribune to the rising phenomenon of “citizen journalism.” That heading takes in everything from the painstaking forensic digital investigations (also called “open-source intelligence”) pioneered by Bellingcat to the bystanders who lift their cell phones and begin recording when an arrest happens in front of them.

“Darnella Frazier turned herself into enough of a journalist that the Pulitzer Prize organization gave her a special citation,” Sullivan notes, referring to the teen who captured the murder of George Floyd on her smartphone. “She was like, ‘Yeah, I think there’s something going on here. And I’m just gonna stand here and make sure I get it all.’”

Given the decimation of local newspapers, Sullivan says she now finds it “poignant” when she sees outstanding work like the Indianapolis Star’s reporting on abuse allegations against former USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar and the Miami Herald’s dogged pursuit of Jeffrey Epstein. But she finds herself thinking of a blog post–“remember blogs?”–from 2009 titled “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.” “It’s over, forget it, stop moaning, stop waxing nostalgic,” says Sullivan, summing up the message of New York University professor Clay Shirky. “He compared the coming of the internet to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, not so much a sea change as a tidal wave. That was a seminal read for me. And it was essentially right.”

Among Shirky’s observations was that when a revolution occurs, all that’s clearly visible is the chaos. “The old stuff,” he wrote, “gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.” For Sullivan, the old saw about the power of the press belonging to whoever owns a printing press turned out to be true. “We all own the printing press now,” she says. “And that is overall democratizing. So that’s encouraging.”

What’s not encouraging, of course, is the confusion that flows from no longer knowing what’s true. Her book entertains an involved debate about “objectivity,” a contentious word that probably amounts to the appearance of fairness. When not on the deep blue Upper West Side, Sullivan is likely at a family cottage in the deepest red part of New York state. “And you know, I think normal people are very interested in the question of, is the news biased? Can I trust? That’s where objectivity and how people feel about that word, and that concept, comes in and does matter. It isn’t just a journalism debate, but actually is something that, at least writ large, has something to do with how people feel about what they’re reading or seeing.”

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We know where this is headed. “The public, normal people, laypeople, I guess, would say, ‘Yeah, of course, I want my news to be objective, but you people aren’t.’ That’s what you would hear. And I think a lot of journalists–and I think this is maybe possibly a little more true of younger journalists, journalists of color, sometimes women–would say, yeah, that old-style objectivity didn’t really work for me. It did for ‘them.’ They think it kind of amounts to somebody else’s objectivity. And it also amounts to both-sides-ism. They’re wanting to challenge things.”

Sullivan says she finds this encouraging as well, though it’s yet another challenge to the news business–one she will soon have the opportunity to explore as a visiting professor at Duke University, her next stop after leaving the Post this year in what she’s called “a self-imposed term limit.” She’s also working on a series of detective novels about a laid-off newspaper reporter named Gail Force. “It’s a way to talk tangentially about local news, through a fictional lens.”

The reality can get a little wearing. Between the rise of cable news grounded in opinion rather than in reporting, and social media algorithms that promote anger because getting whipped up keeps you online, will it even matter if journalism figures out the best way to put something? A whopping portion of the public is no longer listening.

“That’s a huge challenge. And I don’t know the answer to that,” Sullivan says, shaking her head. “We–the independent, reality-based process, as I like to say–are not going to reach a huge swath of Americans. They don’t want to hear it. The Fox News watchers, the big-time Fox News watchers, they have been taught to hate us and to mistrust us. And I don’t really know how to break through that.”

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