Book Reviews

'Pro-Democracy' Journalism's Problem With the Facts

Influential media critic Margaret Sullivan demonstrates the perils of letting narrative get ahead of verification.


Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) from an Ink-Stained Life, by Margaret Sullivan, St. Martin's, 288 pages, $28.99

It takes all of two paragraphs in her memoir-cum-polemic Newsroom Confidential for press critic Margaret Sullivan to unwittingly undermine her thesis that journalism in the age of Donald Trump needs to "shout…from the rooftops" that the fate of democracy itself hinges on the victory of truth over (mostly right-wing) lies.

"By the spring" of 2021, Sullivan writes, in a passage deploring conservative "denialism" about the January 6 Capitol riot, "a Republican congressman would describe the violent attack as something that looked like 'a normal tourist visit.'"

Sullivan, the recently retired Washington Post media columnist best known for her 2012–2016 stint as New York Times public editor, does not name the allegedly denialist congressman, so I did a quick search to double-check the quote and context. It was Rep. Andrew Clyde (R–Ga.), at a May 2021 House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing titled "The Capitol Insurrection: Unexplained Delays and Unanswered Questions," at which he began his remarks like this:

This hearing is called "The Capitol Insurrection." Let's be honest with the American people: It was not an insurrection, and we cannot call it that and be truthful.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines insurrection as, and I quote, "an organized attempt by a group of people to defeat their government and take control of their country, usually by violence." And then, from The Century Dictionary, "the act of rising against civil authority or governmental restraint, specifically the armed resistance of a number of persons to the power of the state."

As one of the members who stayed in the Capitol and on the House floor, who with other Republican colleagues helped barricade the door until almost 3 p.m. that day from the mob who tried to enter, I can tell you: The House floor was never breached, and it was not an insurrection.

This is the truth: There was an undisciplined mob, there were some rioters, and some who committed acts of vandalism. But let me be clear: There was no insurrection, and to call it an insurrection, in my opinion, is a bold-faced lie. Watching the TV footage of those who entered the Capitol and walked through Statuary Hall showed people in an orderly fashion staying between the stanchions and ropes taking videos and pictures. You know, if you didn't know the TV footage was a video from January the 6th, you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit.

There were no firearms confiscated from anyone breaching the Capitol. Also, the only shot fired on January the 6th was from a Capitol Police officer who killed an unarmed protester, Ashli Babbitt.

We can argue over the word "insurrection" and its applicability to January 6. (Sullivan for one uses it as her default descriptor.) We can definitely criticize Clyde for expending his valuable time during an important hearing about an appalling event policing language instead of pointing fingers at his own political party. But what we cannot do, if we are serious about journalistic truth, is assert that the congressman was "describ[ing] the violent attack as something that looked like 'a normal tourist visit.'"

Clyde plainly described the attackers as "an undisciplined mob" that included "some rioters, and some who committed acts of vandalism." A normal tourist visit that is not. The congressman's controversy-generating formulation was applied to a discrete piece of TV footage and a specific viewing condition: If someone did not know about the January 6 connection, and happened to watch the clip "of those who entered the Capitol and walked through Statuary Hall…in an orderly fashion staying between the stanchions and ropes taking videos and pictures," that viewer would not have found it particularly unusual. An actual insurrection, he was positing (somewhat hyperbolically, given the number of flagpoles and trespassers who ventured outside the roped-off path), would not include violence-free scenes like that; ergo, he concluded, the hearing's very name was an improper exaggeration.

These distinctions were of little interest to a press corps that has increasingly taken the advice of Sullivan and her generation of media critics in preferencing "moral clarity" over traditional "objectivity," and in rejecting "false equivalence" and "bothsidesism" in the face of asymmetrical lying by authoritarian conservatives. Sensitively attuned for signs of GOP truth-washing, journalists plucked Clyde's quote out of context to bolster a larger and more important narrative than any piddling linguistic difference between "riot" and "insurrection."

"A GOP congressman compared Capitol rioters to tourists. Photos show him barricading a door," The Washington Post breathlessly reported six days later. NBC, leaning into the Trump-era journalistic fad of naming and shaming Republican falsehoods, invented a falsehood of its own in its lead paragraph:

Multiple Republican members of Congress on Wednesday offered a false retelling of the devastating events that occurred during the Capitol riot, with one calling the entire event a "bold faced lie" that more closely resembled a "normal tourist visit" than a deadly attack.

Clyde did not call "the entire event" a "bold faced lie" (whatever that might mean); he said that describing it as an "insurrection" was.

Scores of news organizations, and Sullivan herself, could have prevented botching a serious accusation by conducting 90 seconds of research. The fact that they did not contributes to one of the very trends they abhor—the collapse of public trust in journalism, particularly among conservatives.

"I left conversations like this feeling almost sickened," Sullivan recounts in her book, after receiving anti-media earfuls during a post-2016-election listening tour of Republican districts. "I couldn't help but recognize that when it came to acknowledging basic truths, huge swaths of America were very far gone." Unfortunately for her professional cohort, that feeling is often mutual.

How can journalists (and news consumers) break the self-reinforcing doom-loop between media and citizen? It's a damnably hard and important question. Sullivan articulated one sound approach back in September 2012: "The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them," she wrote in one of her first pieces as New York Times public editor, "the better off the readership—and the democracy—will be."

Ten years on, Sullivan emphasizes more the confidence of asserting truths rather than the meticulousness of marshaling the supporting evidence. Her writing vibrates with pleasure when recounting such favorite zingers as "Fox News has become an American plague," and it boils to a righteous fury when regarding Trump: "I continually felt that irrational anger like an unending blast of liquid poison from an industrial-strength hose." But the prose plods to a crawl when detailing the meat-and-potatoes journalism of being editor of the Buffalo News. Arguing vituperatively about national politics at the top of the media pyramid is pretty fun, turns out!

Readers of Newsroom Confidential are well advised to keep a search tab open to check Sullivan's claims. Among them: that Russia "interfere[d] with the [2016] election, and did so very effectively," that Facebook ("one of the chief enemies of democracy") "became a pawn in Russia's disinformation campaign in the United States," and that the social media company's "endless misdeeds" included "the ones that spread lies and helped Trump get elected." Such statements may be articles of faith among many Democrats and journalists, but some of us attend different churches, and require more verification.

In the book's second paragraph about January 6 "denialism," Sullivan also accuses Mike Pence of "trying to sow doubt" about the event during an October 2021 Fox News interview with Sean Hannity, stating that "the vice president downplayed the insurrection as merely 'one day in January.'"

What did Pence actually say? "January 6 was a tragic day in the history of our Capitol building. But thanks to the efforts of Capitol Hill police, federal officials, the Capitol was secured. We finished our work." Then the ex-veep tried gamely (and lamely) to change the subject in a way more palatable to Fox viewers: "I know the media wants to distract from the Biden administration's failed agenda by focusing on one day in January. They want to use that one day to try and demean the…character and intentions of 74 million Americans."

Minimization? Maybe. Diversion? Absolutely. Sowing doubt? Two Pinocchios.

The strangest part about Sullivan's hyperbole in the cause of greater truth is that the biggest victim here is her target demographic: journalists. Despite flattering them with the cringe-inducing moniker of "reality-based press," she repeatedly caricaturizes their allegedly stubborn professional resistance to jumping off the objectivity fence.

"Should they call out the lies?" Sullivan writes, imagining the Hamlet-like internal deliberations of Trump-era news organizations. "Should they bend over backward to normalize political behavior that was blasting through every guardrail of democracy? Should they try to look even-handed and neutral at any cost, giving equal treatment of both sides of a political conflict, even if the two sides aren't equally valid? They didn't seem to know. And too often, they seemed to be in a defensive crouch, while right-wing commentators branded them as left-wing activists."

News consumers who aren't partisan Democrats will have a hard time recognizing the newsrooms Sullivan portrays. And those familiar with the media controversies she zips through will be downright baffled by how someone so pious about calling out Republican falsehoods can in the next breath minimize the journalistic transgressions of people she finds more sympathetic.

"I admire Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times for her bravery and vision in writing about the influence on American history of enslaved people's arrival in the English colonies in 1619," Sullivan writes. Er, OK, but what about the 1619 Project's well-documented historical flaws and Hannah-Jones's unprofessional response to criticism? "Her introductory essay won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, and it kicked off an incredible furor among those who refused to make room for what it had to say. Despite the pushback (a tiny portion of which was grounded in objections by a few historians to some of the project's assertions), it accomplished its goals." So: scoreboard.

Sullivan expresses genuine anguish about having had to criticize the deeply flawed New York Times nail-salons exposé by Sarah Maslin Nir, calling it "one of the most stressful episodes" of her public-editorship. "I had the feeling of betraying the young sisterhood who had reached out to me," she writes, while repeatedly stressing the "virtues" of Nir's investigation. (To see Reason's more direct critique, which Sullivan does not mention in the book but addressed in 2015, start here.)

During and after the media's nervous breakdown over race in the summer of 2020, Sullivan tried to ride the tiger of the young newsroom staffs busy defenestrating their elders. "It's the kind of mess that American journalists could come out of stronger and better if they—and the American people they serve—grapple with some difficult questions," she wrote in June 2020.

In Newsroom Confidential she marches through a series of firings, resignations and lawsuits (Donald McNeil, Jr., James Bennet, Felicia Somnez, etc.), and regards the conflicts more as overdue correctives than panicky personnel decisions. "Often, I was [on] the side of what was disparagingly and falsely called the 'woke mob'—the younger, more diverse staffers who were supposedly running roughshod through Big Journalism's newsrooms," she writes, again making bold assertions without supporting evidence. "If 'mob,' a misnomer, meant that staff finally had enough strength in numbers to force long-delayed change at hidebound institutions, I could get behind that."

That cavalier approach to due process foreshadows what is the worst part of most nonfiction books, but this one especially—the inevitable what is to be done chapter near the end.

Sounding a lot like someone cramming for a last-minute pop quiz on policy, Sullivan rat-a-tats a bunch of ideas guaranteed to make civil libertarians squirm. "Those who care about truth must do everything in their power to minimize the harm caused by those media outlets and platforms that traffic in lies and conspiracy theories," she begins, unpromisingly. "Responsible lawsuits…will be a necessary part of this. Advertising boycotts can help. So will efforts to reduce the revenue of news organizations that spread misinformation—Fox News, in particular—by limiting the amount of money they make from lucrative cable transmission fees."

The suggestions get worse with social media. There's the "meaningful regulation to counter the excesses of the social media platforms," amending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (albeit "cautiously"), and "changing laws that shield digital platforms, like Facebook, from being held legally responsible for the content they magnify and amplify via their algorithms." What could go wrong?

"All of this," Sullivan graciously concedes, "has to be carefully balanced with preserving free speech, but First Amendment concerns shouldn't be used as an all-powerful shield against regulation." Thank God there are people besides journalists out there interested in protecting the First Amendment.

With increasingly open attacks on liberalism coming from both major parties, the problems of journalism—in both production and consumption—are real and pressing, if melodramatically stated by Sullivan. ("Above all, the reality-based press should rededicate itself to being pro-democracy," she writes. "Then, I think, America gets a fighting chance.")

There's another new book that tackles largely the same set of issues, sharing many of Sullivan's underlying concerns, yet comes out with diametrically opposed recommendations. Broken News—by former Fox News reporter Chris Stirewalt, who was booted from the network after his Decision Desk called the 2020 presidential race early for Joe Biden in Arizona—complains that, "Just at the exact moment where it would have been most important for journalists to maintain the highest possible standards for objectivity, big-time news dove in the mud with Trump, where he had home field advantage."

Stirewalt, who shares Sullivan's alarm at "the growing appetite for demagoguery among Republicans and Americans in general," sees a trap in news organizations spending "so much time dumping on the coverage of competitors"—consumers' national political hatreds are being profitably organized on the cheap, without much in the way of relevant factual nutrients.

"Media criticism," Stirewalt charges, "has become its own rancid subculture inside the already rotten media business….[It's] a great way to keep addicted consumers from straying. The message is obvious: Aren't you glad you're not like them, and are here with the other smart, virtuous people?"

With the recent cancellation of CNN's long-running journalism-analysis show Reliable Sources, and with the ongoing struggles of properties such as The Washington Post to maintain audience with Trump out of office, we could be entering in a new era for media criticism and elite self-examination. Margaret Sullivan dominated that field over the past decade; here's hoping that whoever takes her place resists taking the partisan bait.