Veteran journalist Margaret Sullivan led the Buffalo News in the last days of newspapers' eminence.
In "Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (And Worries) from an Ink-Stained Life," Sullivan laments the demise of local newspapers and the rise of social media spreading false information.
Over the last few decades, once vital newspapers and local TV news operations have been ravaged by the migration of advertising to Internet sites.
The former media critic for The Washington Post and "public editor" for The New York Times, Sullivan diagnoses major failings of national media, which she blames for Donald Trump's 2016 election.
She stands among those calling for the traditional media to make changes in political coverage, no longer giving equal weight to untruthful views. She gives a thorough exploration of the "objectivity" debate, calling for news media to rigorously expose untruthful claims.
Along with her earnest prescriptions for the embattled news media, Sullivan gives a memoir of her career, from her childhood in Lackawanna, N.Y., a declining industrial suburb of Buffalo, to vaunted places among the elite national media.
From a progressive middle-class family, Sullivan was inflamed to enter journalism by Woodward and Bernstein's Watergate coverage and the film "All the President's Men."
After graduating from Georgetown, Sullivan rose from the reporting ranks to a series of executive positions at her hometown Buffalo News, a curious survivor among afternoon newspapers. She at last reached the top as managing editor and executive editor, increasing the newspaper's staff diversity and giving more coverage to black neighborhoods.
Sullivan said goodbye to Buffalo paper when New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. offered her the public editor's job, in which she answered reader complaints and exposed the newspaper's journalistic failings.
Battling Times editors whom she finds as defensive and self-protective as any government bureaucrat, she finds the job stressful but meaningful. Her prime target is the Times' addiction to anonymous sources, which she never completely quells.
Former Times editors Jill Abramson and Dean Bacquet are skewered as thin-skinned and self-righteous. Although Sullivan shows herself standing her ground against combative Times editors, Sullivan admits that Abramson once made her cry and confesses that she's shed a few newsroom tears. That's about as confidential as the book gets.
Sulzberger, whom a few years ago passed the newspaper's leadership to a new generation, comes across as the most admirable of the Times' leaders, even giving Sullivan a going-away party attended by resentful Times editors.
The account of Sullivan's years at the Post lacks the drama and inside intrigue of her tenure at the Times. Back in the newsroom in the Post features department, she after a slow start gains her footing as a prominent media critic, predominantly taking the Times to task for its exaggerated coverage of Hilary Clinton's email debacle. She finds that the Times' prominent front-page coverage of the Clinton story, along with CNN's incessant coverage of Trump rallies, were a major factor in Trump's unexpected election.
Sullivan's closing chapters are a valuable primer on the news media's crisis, from the demise of local news to the national media's challenges in covering candidates like Trump who stir their conservative base with false claims.
Now a Duke University professor, Sullivan has moved to the sidelines. Her clear-eyed views raise hopes that she'll soon return to the fray.The national media need a smart battler like the woman who never lost her Buffalo toughness, albeit with a few tears here and there.
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