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.
Read the rest