It’s partly a memoir and partly a work of investigative reporting. But it’s mostly an audit of an industry that has spent much of the past decade wetting its pants in fear of digital technology and then worrying about whether to go to the dry cleaners. And it’s a damn good read ... It’s the ultimate irony: Jill Abramson was, indirectly at least, fired because of her resistance to the 'innovation report.' And now she’s produced a marvelous book about exactly how prescient the darn thing was.
... a big, ambitious chronicle of the past decade ... Some have criticized Abramson for favoring the legacy newspapers over the digital start-ups. There may be something to that ... But those sections strike me as warranted and fair ... Besides, Abramson is generous in acknowledging the importance of their best journalism, including Craig Silverman’s groundbreaking work for BuzzFeed on fake news and Elle Reeve’s mini-documentary for Vice about the deadly neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville, Va. ... Errors in galleys are common, but they generally involve typos and spelling mistakes. And not all of the problems were addressed in the final version of the book. Inaccuracies notwithstanding, Merchants of Truth is a valuable and insightful survey.
Abramson’s experience at the pinnacle of American journalism could make her the best person to tell this story, since she had such a good view. It could also make her the worst, since she has a personal stake in trashing certain people and organizations. In Merchants of Truth, she ends up being a little of both ... The chapters on the Times and the Post are excellent. The other chapters are not ... [Abramson’s] account of being fired in 2014 makes Merchants of Truth essential reading ... But there are errors in Merchants of Truth and, as the Twitter firestorms pre-publication indicated, they are chiefly mischaracterizations of young media professionals ... The other mistakes fall into two overlapping categories: denigrating the credentials of young journalists working for BuzzFeed and Vice and poorly researching their biographies ... If Merchants of Truth had focused on the Times and the Post alone, it would have been an excellent contribution to the history of journalism. So why did Abramson step out of her zone of expertise to profile digital media? ... What we’re left with is half of a great book, and half of a book that recommends to other late-career journalists that they take their inheritors seriously.
For all its deficiencies, Merchants of Truth sheds considerable light on the news in this dark time; anyone who wants to understand what has been happening to journalism will learn a great deal from it ... Yet in writing her book, or perhaps not writing enough of it, Abramson has landed herself in an ethical controversy. Her critics have been hard on her, and it’s not surprising. A writer on lapses in journalism who becomes an illustration of the profession’s problems is like a preacher revealed to be a sinner. No one in the congregation will talk about anything else ... The major limitation of Abramson’s book is that it offers too reassuring a picture of journalism ... The picture of the news that Abramson provides is also too reassuring because it leaves out the radical transformation of the right ... Yet the truth about our truth-seeking media, as Abramson’s book rightly emphasizes, is that they are also profit-seeking; our merchants of truth operate not only under journalistic norms but also under commercial constraints.
... a vivid portrayal of [The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vice, and BuzzFeed] ... [Abramson's] insider account — a combination of extensive firsthand reporting illuminated by insightful analysis — instead portrays just how the media arrived where it is today ... Abramson holds no punches in her lengthy portrayals of those at the helm of these companies ... For the most part, Abramson is fair ... Throughout the book, Abramson references but — just like many stakeholders in the media — doesn’t offer many remedies for this dark reality.
[Abramson] uses her book to mount an expert and passionate defense of old-school journalism. But she overlooks some of its core tenets to do it ... The gossip is great, but Abramson also conducts deeply sourced and sensitive analysis of everything from the way that BuzzFeed exploits psychology to get clicks to the Times' ongoing struggle to maintain integrity and solvency at the same time ... Abramson is deeply concerned about journalistic integrity, especially the thinning line between business and editorial sides of news outlets. But, even so, she makes a surprising number of errors in her own work here. Many of these are quiet but revealing omissions of context ... These aren't howlers, but quiet compromises with the truth ... In Merchants of Truth, Abramson seems to see the world in black and white: new versus old, mercenary versus honorable, clickbait versus reporting, advertising versus editorial, and so on. People are either allies or enemies. But as Abramson — good Jill and bad Jill — should know, it is rarely that simple.
[Like David Halberstam,] Abramson is also a writer of detail — but is a sharper judge of the companies and their creators ... [Abramson's] reporting is lucid and her commentary insightful. She has fully grasped the worlds she describes, understands their pressures and the daring required to succeed — while posing an insistent question ... The book is a vastly useful immersion in the ways of contemporary journalism...
On one level, Abramson’s book is a love letter to journalism. Its most admired characters are the reporters whose heroics she weaves throughout engrossing, sometimes gossipy profiles of the four companies, women and men working at the top of their game ... But these valentines appear alongside Abramson’s unflinching assessments of executives’ miscalculations ... Abramson was researching her book as stories broke in the Daily Beast and the Times about rampant sexual harassment at Vice, but her account is in many ways the richest. Her years writing and editing long-form investigative journalism are on display ... The nation’s shriveling local news report is an industry crisis, and I missed Abramson’s reporting applied to that story ... Her account of losing her job reads as a small memoir within the book, a melancholic reconstruction ... I suspect that this book, which provides Abramson’s first full depiction of the period, will reignite that conversation [about sexism in the workplace].
It is a cracking read, and a complicated one, flawed in many places yet absorbing in its frank desire to hold journalism to account for becoming overly willing to sell out to advertisers and thereby endangering its own future ... Where [Abramson's] account shines is in her stories of the thrill of the news chase ... What [Abramson] misses is that coverage of these issues is not a matter of the latest fashion; it’s a shift in American history. Despite that, her best storytelling in the book is about women in journalism, including herself ... Merchants of Truth in its frankness is an essential read, and its skewering of journalism’s leaders will earn Abramson some new enemies, as well as provoke old ones.
It’s the same horror show that many titans of the old guard have already described in black-and-white terms. Abramson’s interwoven narratives illustrate the stakes of the news industry’s fight to survive in this world. But she evaluates the strategies for doing so using some of the same assumptions that contributed to the predicament in the first place. The end result is a series of journalistic purity tests that no one could honestly pass, even if they wanted to ... There is plenty of truth to this dystopian narrative—particularly as local newspapers disappear—even if its genesis long predates social media. It is also true that the use of digital tools to capture stories and respond to audiences has in many case made journalism more dynamic.
Abramson’s frequent criticism of BuzzFeed and Vice seems to revolve around the fact that neither attempts to emulate the Abramson-era New York Times ... This is, in digital parlance, a hot take. There is little evidence to back it up ... the fundamental tension in Abramson’s book: Are the real merchants of truth those who are prepared to see journalism as a living organism—one that’s cognizant of financial compromises, reflective of political reality, and responsive to cultural shifts? Or should they rather pay homage to at-times calcified ideals, as if journalism were nothing but a monument to better days?
... [Abramson's] unvarnished analysis is a tonic to breathless accounts of new media companies inclined to take them at their own reckoning ... Abramson’s apparent lapses on attribution - six apparently bang-to-rights instances she’s copped to - are disappointing ... At minimum, [the lapses on attribution suggest] carelessness – doubly unfortunate in that it occurs in an otherwise sharply reported work.
... a richly detailed and compelling analysis of the current battle for attention, credibility, and authority ... The broad contours of Ms. Abramson’s analysis of the news business will be familiar to most of her readers. Merchants of Truth, alas, is also repetitious, and awash in gossipy details about drinking, drugs and misogyny. That said, the book is a tour de force of investigative journalism. Jill Abramson knows her subject — and many of her subjects.
This is an immensely timely book, but, as the delivery of news and the contours of the media landscape change at warp speed, it is also quickly overtaken by events... For the merchants of truth, the medium is the message but also a moving target. Abramson has done an impressive amount of research, including interviewing Times executives with whom she parted ways. Her first-person section seems, at first, oddly out of place, but it is also an honest and unavoidable coming-to-grips with her own complicated relationship with the changing Times and her sometimes difficult role, both personally and professionally ... anyone who cares about the truth and how we distinguish fact from fiction — and how the truth is delivered today and in the future — would do well to read Merchants of Truth.
Never better than when she is detailing her personal professional crises when inherent conflicts between old and new media rattled Times management, Abramson offers an engrossing 'behind the curtains' journey into the demanding business of modern media ... Abramson’s expert and frank assessment of the struggles of the press in the 'fake news' era will attract avid attention.
What’s good about Merchants of Truth... is also its weakness: Abramson’s adherence to a mid-20th-century standard of reportorial objectivity. There are countless occasions when that is exactly the approach called for from a writer. This book wasn’t one of them. Although the accuracy of Abramson’s reporting in this extensively footnoted book has been contested by some of her subjects, she clearly cares about the facts. But it’s ludicrous for her to pretend that she can tell this story in large part without bias. It’s also a missed opportunity ... Merchants of Truth would feel more coherent if it recounted how it felt to be leading the Times during these convulsions ... In trying to sound impartial, Abramson sometimes comes across as attempting to pass off her own prejudices as fact ... In a way, the most puzzling aspect of Merchants of Truth isn’t the errors Abramson made and then did or didn’t correct: It’s the narrowness of the book’s purview
But if [Abramson] had failings as an editor, her new book, Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts, shows that she’s an excellent reporter and a talented writer. It’s a lively, engaging, provocative and important book about the difficulties of doing honest journalism when there’s less money to pay for it ... It’s hard to find any 400-page book without a few minor errors, and score-settling is to be expected given that Abramson was driven out of the Times like a typhoid carrier. But it’s a solid work, and she in fact has high praise for the Times’ coverage of the president.
[Abramson's] profiles of the four organizations offer rich details of how each found its footing in a treacherous media environment ... Merchants of Truth is a fascinating read, but even an undertaking of this ambition cannot fully capture the tectonic shifts in the news media in the past decade. Only one of the 13 chapters is devoted to the Facebook factor, which revolutionized the consumption of information — in an algorithm-driven system that proved vulnerable to manipulation. By focusing on four prominent organizations, the book gives barely more than passing mention to one of the most insidious trends in media: the swallowing of local journalism by craven chains that are openly peddling political ideology or eviscerating newsrooms for the sake of profits.
Better than many in her business, Abramson understands the roiling craft of journalism from the inside. Refreshingly, she writes candidly about her own complicated role in the tsunami of change washing over the industry ... A highly readable combination of significant topic, deep reporting, endlessly fascinating anecdotes, and vivid writing.
[A] scintillating insider’s history ... Abramson’s shrewd, stylishly written account includes colorful characters and savvy portraits of newsroom dynamics. The result is one of the best takes yet on journalism’s changing fortunes.