Weekend reads: Newsroom Confidential
A famed media critic's memoir, and what it tells us about political polarization
In my old newsroom, the feeling was that stories on the inner workings of the news media were too esoteric, too “inside baseball,” for the casual radio listener. Ordinary citizens, the thinking went, were just not that interested in how the sausage gets made. But if the popularity of books about the press, essays on why it’s lost the public’s trust, and Hollywood films such as She Said are any indication, that’s no longer the case — if it ever was.
And so media critic and former Pulitzer Prize board member Margaret Sullivan’s highly readable memoir, Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) from an Ink-Stained Life, joins a crowded field of commentary. Nevertheless, it manages to distinguish itself through its insights into political polarization. Sullivan’s opinions largely align with the dominant perspective in left-leaning media, but how she arrived at this worldview is a complicated story. And an illuminating one.
Sullivan has been in the business for more than 40 years, starting out as an intern at The Buffalo News and working her way up the masthead to its top editor spot. From there, she was appointed public editor of The New York Times, an ombudsman role that, by design, pitted her against her colleagues. Next, Sullivan served as a media columnist at The Washington Post, before becoming a visiting professor at Duke University, and, most recently, a columnist for The Guardian.
Her memoir chronicles her tenacious rise through the ranks. But, in the end, as Kathy Kiely, of the Missouri School of Journalism, notes in a review in The Washington Post, it is less a personal narrative and more a manifesto on the role that the press should play in society. Sullivan sees Fox News and the Trump presidency — and indeed whole segments of the modern American right — as existential threats to democracy, and argues that the traditional norms of journalism are inadequate to the task of confronting them.
As a result, although Sullivan lobs some shots at her own tribe here — calling out The New York Times’s failure on the weapons of mass destruction story in the lead-up to the Iraq war, the paper’s ubiquitous use of anonymous sources, and the broader, left-leaning media’s mishandling of the Steele Dossier, “a collection of unprovable allegations dressed up as an intelligence report” — she still sits comfortably within the narrow window of elite liberal media opinion. Most significantly, Sullivan questions the long-held aim of journalistic objectivity, maintains that the extremity of our times calls on journalists to adopt a more activist role, and backs the identitarian movement that’s sweeping newsrooms. And, notably, has advocated for the tighter regulation of online speech. (“The digital revolution requires a revolutionary change in restraining out-of-control practitioners,” she has opined in The Washington Post.)
What’s interesting to me, as someone who disagrees with all of the above, is how Sullivan, an advocate for free speech, local news, and on-the-ground investigative reporting, who spent much of her career upholding traditional press principles, working outside of power centres, could wind up taking such positions in the first place. And on that, Newsroom Confidential is instructive. Sullivan’s shift toward the more partisan wing of the liberal press corps demonstrates how cycles of polarization operate.
It’s interesting to note that Sullivan’s tenure at The New York Times — where she was an outsider, by her own admission — concluded awkwardly, with a farewell dinner with colleagues that was “more than a little uncomfortable.” She arrived at The Washington Post in May of 2016, where, as she tells it in the book, she was “daunted” and felt “out of place.” During this “rocky adjustment” period, Sullivan pushed herself hard to find a way to make her mark. “The first few columns I wrote, I felt like they really didn’t hit,” she told Washington Post media reporter Elahe Izadi at a book appearance at the Politics and Prose store.
Sullivan quickly came to understand that writing for The Washington Post necessitated a relentless focus on national politics. And she “saw an opportunity to hit hard” when CNN hired former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as a pundit. “Several weeks into the job, I finally wound up my fastball,” she writes. The resulting column, “CNN’s hiring of Lewandowski insults the press,” was lauded in influential media circles, with the likes of NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen tweeting his praise. “From that point on,” Sullivan recalls, “I recognized that I needed to write nimbly and with a harder, more critical edge.”
This goes some way to explaining Sullivan’s embrace of partisan politics. But I think there’s a deeper, more emotionally complex explanation to be found here.
The “moment of no return,” as Sullivan herself describes it, actually came in July of 2016, when she was assigned to cover the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. She was still feeling uneasy about this new chapter in her life and career — “the combined blessing and curse of my relentless internal drive to prove myself”— and was anxious to find an idea for her next column. “I shouldn’t have worried about finding material,” she writes. “The biggest story of my life was unfolding right there before my eyes.”
Walking through those crowds, Sullivan was alarmed by the “ugly tone,” “gleeful misogyny,” and “waves of disgust and anger” coming off the crowd. And that Trump “gloried in it.”
“As I started to write what I hoped were well-reasoned columns about Trump’s relationship with the media,” she recounts, “I continually felt that irrational anger like an unending blast of liquid poison from an industrial-strength hose.”
Where once Sullivan had been met with openness, and even respect, she was now being confronted by an increasingly wary public that did not trust the mainstream media, and did not think it represented their interests. Consider this passage:
At that early point, I was still looking for common ground with the Trump crowd — the kind that I had always been able to find with readers of all political stripes. Never during my years at The Buffalo News did I believe that I couldn’t listen to or communicate with readers, no matter what their party affiliation. And I cultivated that. After I moved into a management position, I made sure that I had no political party affiliation; I was registered to vote as “blank.” So, at first, I sought this same open-minded connection with Trump’s fans. At the Cleveland airport, I talked with one convention delegate, a concierge for a car dealership named Mary Sue McCarty, who wore a cowboy hat and pearls as she waited for her flight home to Dallas. She was friendly and personable, but certainly had her mind made up about the news media: “Journalists aren’t doing their jobs. They are protecting a certain class.”
After Sullivan’s experiences in Cleveland, as she put it at the Politics and Prose event, “it’s kind of been all Trump, all the time.”
In the weeks and months that followed, the abusive messages that she received from Trump supporters “shocked and even frightened” her. For the first time in her life, she was being called the c-word on a regular basis.
Sullivan reflects that “in my four decades in journalism, I’d never seen anything like the fever pitch I first experienced in Cleveland, and then for a long time afterwards.”
It would be easy to explain her reaction — penning increasingly partisan coverage of the right, such as one viral piece, “pushing the limits of my role as a news-side columnist,” that her editor referred to as her “Fox-is-the-actual-devil column” — as distress over lost status, which may be partially true.
It would be equally tempting to chalk up her heated rhetoric to the lure of powerful career incentives, which may also be at play. (This admission is worth noting, for example: “In my columns, I criticized the press’s obsession with the former reality TV star, but I was caught up in it, too. I knew that if I wrote a column about Trump, it would find a passionate audience: thousands of comments, thousands of retweets, hundreds of emails, requests to talk on TV, and the radio.”)
But I think the full picture is far more nuanced, and far more human.
Sullivan absolutely loves journalism. She’s devoted her life to it, making considerable personal sacrifices to do so. Time and time again in the book, she comes across as genuinely committed to her readers; she’s someone whose entire life has been structured around the meaning and purpose delivered by that relationship.
Sullivan clearly sees herself as playing a useful role in society, and in the lives of the individual citizens she encounters in her work. To be suddenly greeted as a pariah must have been painful.
Add to that, her embrace of partisanship took place in the context of her move away from local newsrooms — which remain highly connected to their communities — to ever-more rarified media bubbles, cut off from the diversity of public opinion. (Sullivan, like many others in 2016, had to scrap a column she’d already started on Hillary Clinton’s victory, as the election results came in. Though, to her credit, the first column she wrote in the Trump era called for a reckoning in the press: “Although eating crow is never appealing, we’ll be digesting feathers and beaks in the next weeks and months — and maybe years.”)
It makes sense that in a vacuum of positive contact with ordinary people, online clicks and peer validation would rush in to fill the void.
And it’s not surprising — although it is deeply concerning — that Sullivan’s provocative columns on Trump and the right would result in ever-more vitriolic mail, which thereby reinforced the whole cycle of polarization. In the end, as Sullivan told Molly Jong-Fast at a Cooper Union event, it contributed to her decision to retire from The Post.
This is less a political story, then, and more a human one.
As such, Newsroom Confidential performs a vital service. It demonstrates exactly how an experienced and committed journalist, a defender of democracy, could wind up losing faith in the half the citizens she serves.
In this scenario, everyone loses — but most especially the public.
If you missed it this week, media critic Steve Krakauer was on the Lean Out podcast, discussing his new book Uncovered: How the Media Got Cozy with Power, Abandoned Its Principles, and Lost the People. You can listen to that interview here.
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Tara, thanks for your very nuanced look at Sullivan. It would have been much easier just to slam her for being part of the "elite media." But you have made her "human," even as you disagree with her. If only more of this could happen in all press!
There is something about your look at Sullivan's memoir that reminds me of about Ezra Klein's Why We are Polarized book. Klein writes insightfully about the political "sorting" that has happened in the US, and how it creates "tribes" that hate the other for a sense of identity. But then he overwhelmingly critiques only Republicans for their tribalism - unconsciously illustrating his very point by the lack of self-critique of liberal Democrats. i wonder if the same thing is happening with Sullivan: lamenting polarization, but her own siloing feeds a polarization she cannot see or get out of.
It also makes me grateful for your own work. Very courageously you are trying to remain open to those not in your "tribe" - if, in fact, you still have a tribe - while trying to call your own "people" to account. In religious terms, one would call this having a "prophetic" orientation - not a "prophet" in a demogogical sense, but one that looks at one's own faults first, before obsessing over the faults of the other. In that sense, thanks for being a kind of Canadian version of a prophetic journalist.
This is excellent insight and a necessary reminder why understanding those you don't agree with is so incredibly important.