In a time when a U.S. president has been known to call journalists the “enemy of the people,” the everyday work of reporting the news has rarely been more challenging. That’s how Margaret Sullivan, the media columnist for The Washington Post, sees it.
Following the death of New York Times media analyst David Carr in 2015, Sullivan is one of the few national voices in print and on the web who speaks hard truths about the embattled news industry’s shortcomings and offers thoughtful remedies amid heightened public skepticism about the value that journalists bring to society.
Sullivan, former editor of The Buffalo News, rose to national attention in 2012 when she became the first female public editor of the Times, charged with holding it ethically accountable for its actions. She moved to The Post in 2016.
On campus this week for a visit to the Shorenstein Center at Harvard Kennedy School, Sullivan spoke with the Gazette about the state of the news business, why it was a mistake for The Times to eventually eliminate the public editor position, and what young journalists should know about the craft.
GAZETTE: The media have been a big part of the news in the last year or two. What’s the state of journalism today? What should reporters and editors be doing that they’re not?
SULLIVAN: I think we are in a period of incredible turmoil. And in some news organizations I would even go so far as to say chaos. But we’re in a time of great change. We’re under attack, certainly, from the president.
On the issue of trust, I have a more nuanced point of view. I spent this past summer really trying to talk to non-coastal, regular folks about their feelings about the news media. I came away feeling like the reality wasn’t quite what I had seen portrayed in public opinion polls. It was a more nuanced picture than that. A lot of people don’t think the news media is perfect, but they do feel like they can get credible information from their own news media. There is sort of a split between this idea of “the media” that’s out there and “my media,” which is more trusted. So, if you read The Boston Globe and look at The New York Times online and listen to NPR, you feel like, “Yes, I know what’s going on.” But if I were to ask you about “the media,” you might get this idea that I’m talking about all kinds of things: Facebook, Sean Hannity, CNN. So I don’t think we’re defining it well. I think it’s extremely misleading to talk about “the media” as if it’s some sort of cohesive entity. It isn’t. I think it needs to be examined a little more closely, and that [will begin] to give us a better picture.
In terms of what journalists should be doing at this point, part of what’s going on is we’re covering a president who is unlike any other. And so, we can’t really just do things the same old way and expect that to work. Some of the things I’m seeing that I think are good involve the new emphasis on fact-checking. Fact-checking done in real time is extremely important. Any kind of explainer journalism is very helpful. Take this whole thing with the [Rep. Devin] Nunes memo: If you asked people to explain that to you, I think they would have a hard time doing so except as a fight between the president and Republicans in Congress and the Democrats. Can people really describe what the issues are? Probably not. So I think we need to do a better job of catching people up on issues so they can have a better understanding.
GAZETTE: There was much hand-wringing after the election about the press coverage. Has the media learned lessons from the start of the 2016 presidential campaign?
SULLIVAN: I think we’re doing a better job with paying attention to some of the parts of the country that we weren’t very much in tune with — at least some news organizations are. I can speak about The Washington Post for one, which has something called the America Desk, that makes an effort to cover all of the United States and get away from just the Acela corridor. The Post was doing that before as well, but now we’re doing more of it. Part of the reason for that is that we know we didn’t capture the feeling of the country fully, and election night was a big wake-up call.
GAZETTE: At a time when trust in the news is low, and demand for accountability and reader engagement are high, why have so many newspapers, including The Post and The Times, done away with the public editor or ombudsman position? That seems counterproductive.
SULLIVAN: I think news organizations find ombudsmen/public editors to be something of a burr under the saddle. You’re there to critique them, basically, and it’s not very fun to be critiqued. And it’s worse, in some ways, when it’s coming from inside.
But I think that the biggest news organizations, and I would certainly include The Times in this, did benefit from the role because it made readers feel like they had an advocate inside the paper. I don’t accept the argument that, “Well, there’s so much outside criticism that that should take care of it. All we really need to do is bring that criticism to the surface and answer those questions.” That’s not the same thing as having an experienced journalist able to go to the top people and get some answers.
GAZETTE: Last month, you wrote a column critical of The Times in which you talked about the paper being “addicted” to its unique access to power, and how that has harmed its coverage, exacerbating what appears to be a crouch the paper enters when people criticize it. For example, there was a 2017 feature story about a white supremacist that appeared empathetic, and a recent opinion page given over to Trump voters. Those drew flak for seeming to accommodate a “both sides” equivalency. Why are they defensive about criticism?
SULLIVAN: The Times is a unique institution, and one of the reasons I wrote that column was that I think that what The Times does is very important. It affects the entire media system. And so, it’s especially important for them to be transparent, it’s especially important for them to own their mistakes. All journalists make mistakes, and all news organizations make mistakes. The Times also attracts a tremendous amount of criticism.
Someone observed, when I was public editor, that criticizing the Times is a form of performance art. It’s kind of like, “Here’s a way that I can get attention, too — by criticizing The Times.” So all of those things are part of the mix. The Times does a lot of things extremely well, but I do say they have a tough time fully owning their mistakes. And that’s why I think having a public editor there, although it may not be pleasant, is useful.
GAZETTE: There’s a fascinating piece in Politico magazine that explains how the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag was a coordinated campaign, an example of computational propaganda with ties to Russian bot networks and aided by U.S. residents and others on social media and conservative media. The goal of computational propaganda, the piece explains, is to shape news coverage, frame issues in a favorable way, and shape the behaviors of both lawmakers and the public. By that measure, #ReleaseTheMemo wildly succeeded. Do you think people working in news understand that newsgathering and other trappings of news (exposes, analyses, punditry) are being used as a tool of information warfare and that in some cases, as with Russia, straight-ahead reporting is being used to advance an agenda?
SULLIVAN: I think we’re beginning to grapple with that. It’s a huge change in our business and one that’s very hard to get your head around and extremely important to do so. I’m not sure how it translates into action, actually, because O.K., even if you know that this is going on, how is it supposed to change? You can certainly write about it, you can explain it to people, you can take it into account. But in the end, you’re doing your best to gather the news and present it as truthfully as possible. There may be some brilliant answer to how to deal with this new reality, but I don’t know what it is.
GAZETTE: Has the industry sufficiently recognized how President Trump has been able to control the news cycle by getting outlets to chase tweets and remarks that serve his interests, but that may have no real public policy implications? His “treason” remarks this week about Democrats who didn’t clap for him at the State of the Union address is an example.
SULLIVAN: When the president of the United States speaks, especially speaks in an unusual, outrageous, accusatory way, we have to pay attention to that and also point out, in this case, what the actual meaning of treason is, and that this isn’t treason. Treason is right up there with calling the press “the enemy of the American people.” It’s a very harsh kind of criticism to level. The president has a relationship with language that’s nontraditional, to say the least. He uses expressions and descriptions in a way that are very exaggerated. Do we overreact to that sometimes? Yes, I think we do.
I don’t think that we should be in the business as journalists of chasing every tweet and writing stories about every tweet. But when President Trump is tweeting, these comments become part of the political record. These are statements from the president, who’s extremely powerful and influential, and I don’t know how we ignore them. But I don’t think we have to react to each one of them as if we’re responding to a five-alarm fire.
GAZETTE: What advice do you give aspiring young journalists? Should they go into the industry and, if so, what should they know and know how to do?
SULLIVAN: I’m generally encouraging to students who are really committed to being journalists. If they have a passion for it and they’ve done the internships and the student newspapers and all the things you have to do, I think there are still opportunities out there. Certainly, the work couldn’t be more important than it is now, so I never want to say to someone who is a passionate student journalist, “Forget it; you need to go to law school.” I wouldn’t and I don’t say that. But I do think we need to be realistic. The old path is not there anymore: the idea that you might go to work for a small-town paper and quickly get yourself to a regional and then move on to a really big paper. That path, while it hasn’t disappeared entirely, is much less dependable than it used to be.
Some of the digital-only news organizations based in New York or Washington, they aren’t very fulfilling places to work because their business model is based in part on volume of readership, also known as clicks, and so the writers have to generate a lot of work. It’s kind of a hamster wheel, in some cases, so that is not always very satisfying. But I also know a bunch of young journalists who have managed to get really good jobs and do fine work. I do think they need to master the old skills and also need to be able to do a lot of the newer things. They have to be strong on social media. They might need to be able to shoot their own videos or do others things like that. They need to have a combination of the old and the new.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.