Bitter Clingers: How Mainstream Journalists Mourn the Loss of Cultural Supremacy

REVIEW: 'Newsroom Confidential' by Margaret Sullivan

October 30, 2022

We're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but come on. There is surely an exception for Newsroom Confidential by Margaret Sullivan, the cover of which features a blurb from Katie Couric about "how journalism really works." Dan Rather must have been too busy looking for work. It sounds like a joke, but until recently the disgraced news anchor had a steady gig discussing media ethics on a show called Reliable Sources.

Having seen this, and noting the author's work history at the New York Times and Washington Post, I judged Sullivan's book to be an unserious work of #Resistance fan fiction. I read it to make sure, but I needn't have bothered. For example, there is an entire chapter—"But Her Emails..."—about how the media's "endless emphasis on [Hillary] Clinton's email practices doomed her campaign perhaps more than any other factor," in which the author approvingly cites noxious partisans such as David Brock, Charles Pierce, and Ian Millhiser.

Like a white nationalist aghast at the country's demographic transformation, Sullivan is "sickened" at the mainstream media's loss of cultural supremacy. The author and her industry peers aren't as influential as they used to be, which is bad because their opinions are the right opinions. They "base their views and actions on science and reason." Alas, the American people don't trust them anymore, but that's mainly because of the Iraq war and Fox News, the author insists. Nothing less than the future of democracy is at stake.

To paraphrase our country's preeminent communicator: You go to these big newsrooms in New York and Washington, D.C., and, like a lot of media outlets, the ratings and traffic are way down and nothing's replaced them. Everyone keeps saying their audiences are going to regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to "democracy" or the war in Ukraine or antipathy toward people who aren't like them as a way to explain their frustrations.

Newsroom Confidential is half memoir, half lament for the media's fading relevance. Sullivan recounts the "lessons" and "worries" she accumulated over the course of her 42-year career in journalism, which more or less traced the industry's rise and fall in the post-Watergate era. A wide-eyed intern who worked her way up to editor of the Buffalo News, she abandoned the Rust Belt for the Upper West Side and the "singular ... cachet" of the Times, where she served as public editor from 2012 to 2016 and occasionally complained that local newspapers were on the decline.

After using her platform at the Times to denounce colleagues for giving "equal weight" to Republican positions and respond to "intense criticism ... on Twitter," Sullivan jumped to the Washington Post. There she joined a stable of mediocre pundits who chased clicks and assuaged traumatized liberals who required multiple columns a week about why hating Donald Trump and Fox News made you a good person. "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 on the radio," she recalls.

Sullivan's gift for mediocre punditry is on full display as she channels the boutique anxieties of an élite professional class who pines for the days of Woodward, Bernstein, and Cronkite while openly despising their "non-college" compatriots who pine for manufacturing jobs and don't necessarily think what happened on Jan. 6, 2021, was "one of the most appalling moments in all of American history."

Nevertheless, it is hard to take the author seriously when key aspects of the book's thesis—that the mainstream media's output since 2016 has been insufficiently antagonistic toward Trump; that journalists these days are insufficiently obsessed with themselves and reluctant to embrace their role as pro-democracy activists—suggest a worldview at odds with reality.

Sullivan argues, for example, that the media can restore public trust by denouncing the bad things "more forcefully," and declaring "war" on Donald Trump to save democracy. Journalists should "start being patriotic." Not by "wearing American-flag label pins," obviously, but by "giving proper attention to the role of the press in a democracy, and letting that coverage reflect that." By finally reckoning with the "dire consequences" of their failure to prevent voters from letting them down in 2016. By acknowledging their inability t0 "communicate ... effectively or even grasp the problem" with Trump's "deeply abnormal" candidacy.

By now you might be wondering, as I was: What on earth is she talking about? Has she watched even five minutes of cable in the past six years? How many times are journalists and other Democrats going to blame ineffective communication when voters fail to validate their preferences? Sullivan should know better. While touring the country in an effort to engage with normal Americans and understand what happened in 2016, she observed that voters aren't getting the media's message because they've stopped listening. "Most people I talked to just didn't care about the news, shrugged off the implications of a Trump presidency, and seemed uninterested in following the news closely or critically," she writes. (Psst... maybe that's what makes them normal. Maybe journalists are the weirdos.)

That brings us back to Katie Couric. If this book was an earnest attempt to explain the public's apathy toward the media, she wouldn't have lent her name. That book would probably include a whole chapter on the former Today show cohost about the time the Washington Free Beacon exposed her for deceptively editing a conversation with gun-rights activists in her 2016 documentary Under the Gun. Couric refused to apologize or fix the misleading segment, which made it appear as though she had stumped the activists with her unassailable logic. (She had not.)

Couric hung out with Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein for decades. She attended a dinner party at Jeffrey Epstein's mansion in 2010—after the jet-setting pedophile became a registered sex offender. The same year Epstein's accomplice, Ghislaine Maxwell, was a guest at Chelsea Clinton's wedding. Like so many other exalted members of the cultural élite, Couric was shocked to learn these guys were total creeps. Who could've known?

Answer: Many people, including journalist Ronan Farrow, whose in-depth reporting on Weinstein's sex crimes was spiked by Couric's old network, NBC. Amy Robach, an ABC News anchor, filmed an interview with one of Epstein's accusers that network executives refused to air. Donald Trump described Epstein as someone who liked girls "on the younger side" back in 2002. Journalists cite this as a knock on Trump, but it's actually an indictment of the media's tendency to look the other way when powerful Democrats commit violent crimes.

Last year, Couric revealed she omitted portions of her 2016 interview with Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The self-described "big RBG fan" said she did it to "protect" her hero from criticism. Couric's boss urged her not to cut Ginsburg's problematic remarks about how black athletes who kneeled during the national anthem were showing "contempt for a government that has made it possible for their parents and grandparents to live a decent life, which they probably could not have lived in the places they came from." Couric thought the comments were "unworthy of a crusader for equality," so she left them out.

Couric currently sits on the board of the Aspen Institute's commission on media disinformation, whose work Sullivan touts as a framework for how the press can "rededicate itself to being pro-democracy." Maybe, just maybe, there's a good reason why most Americans no longer feel compelled to take these people seriously. For all her sermonizing "the truth," Sullivan doesn't seem all that concerned with it. Advancing the correct agenda is paramount. For example, she praises Nikole Hannah-Jones and the controversial 1619 Project, which "accomplished its goals" despite the "objections by a few historians to some of the project's assertions."

Days before her book came out, Sullivan's media colleagues teamed up to bully NBC News reporter Dasha Burns for daring to speak honestly about a Democrat after interviewing John Fetterman, the stroke victim and candidate for U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania. Fetterman's disastrous performance at Tuesday night's debate vindicated Burns's account of his mental fitness. Her fellow journalists, who are hysterically concerned about attacks on the press, bullied her for telling the truth. These people have lost their minds. Tune them out. Shrug them off. Lose interest. Don't read their books if you can help it.

FACT CHECK: Speaking of truth, Sullivan writes that Fred Ryan, publisher and CEO of the Washington Post, was a cofounder of "Politico, the D.C.-based news organization." That's false. Politico is headquartered in Arlington, Va., many floors below the Washington Free Beacon.