Book Review By Kevin Canfield on DateBook
Alan Rusbridger spent four decades in the newspaper business, and for almost half that time, he was the top editor of one of Britain’s best dailies. the Guardian. His new book, “Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now,” reminds us what the profession is up against in the 2010s and beyond.
In this age of hyperconnectivity, the information available to journalists in “almost infinite,” he writes. “But, at the same time, we have created the most prodigious capability for spreading lies the world has ever seen. And the economic system for supporting journalism looks dangerously unstable. The stakes for truth have never been higher.”
This isn’t groundbreaking analysis. Yet it’s a point that cannot be made too often. Journalism — print especially — has been in turmoil for almost a generation, battered by free online news and classified listings, and the corresponding decline of ad sales. Rusbridger’s smart but uneven book comes at the problem from two angles.
First, in a career-spanning jaunt through his 36 years as a reporter and editor with the Guardian, he discusses the paper’s coverage of big news stories and explains how it adapted to the emergence of social media and personalized newsfeeds. At a moment when journalists are under attack from those who have reason to fear facts, Rusbridger underscores the diligence with which most reporters and editors approach their work.
Rusbridger’s other focus is the future, and how it might be shaped by fake news and mistrust of the press. In the face of such trends, he says, there are meaningful things journalists can do. He advocates what he calls “open journalism,” reporting that uses crowdsourcing techniques. In a similar vein, he suggests that more reporters should “curate their articles after publication,” adding developments and perspectives that emerge after the articles are “in the public domain” (this is already happening, of course; reporters just don’t use the term “curating” when they’re updating a web news article). Meanwhile, Rusbridger says, media organizations might show a little more humility.
On this latter point, Rusbridger cites the late Washington Post political writer David Broder’s definition of daily reporting: “partial, hasty, incomplete, inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate.” He adds, “Maybe the biggest step we could take towards winning trust … is to do what Broder suggested 31 years ago — ‘label the product accurately.’” We all agree that news organizations should do everything they can to correct their errors. In America in 2019, though, a media outlet that doesn’t just fix its mistakes but accentuates its own shortcomings is only handing a rhetorical weapon to the president and his fans.
At heart, “Breaking News” is an archetypal behind-the-curtain memoir, with Rusbridger looking at big events through the prism of the Guardian’s coverage. He gives a fascinating account of his decision to publish classified documents obtained by Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. The Snowden leak enabled the Guardian to reveal that America’s National Security Agency was collecting great amounts of private internet and cell phone data. Rusbridger devotes three dozen pages to the Snowden episode, exploring the idea of consent as it relates to the relationship between citizens, elected officials and intelligence agencies, and recounting how the authorities in England nearly prosecuted him for his decision to publish. It’s the book’s most gripping chapter.
While reporting these stories, the Guardian contended with what Rusbridger calls “the universal problem: the need to sustain (web) traffic in order to increase advertising rates.” Where did this problem start? In “a little, battered, nineteenth-century clapboard house” in San Francisco. There, adds Rusbridger, “an affable-looking geek” named Craig Newmark started Craigslist, the free classified ad service that went a long way toward “singlehandedly destroying the American newspaper industry.”
After 9/11, the Guardian courted left-leaning readers in the U.S., deciding not to establish a website paywall. Its “digital first” posture helped make it one of the most popular English-language newspaper sites. It must be said, though, that the Guardian’s unusual financial status — it’s owned by a trust with a huge endowment — gave it more leeway than many of its competitors.
“Breaking News” has some clear flaws. There are a bunch of long, bullet-pointed lists on various topics; these often read like interoffice memos. And there’s some overly enthusiastic praise for some of Rusbridger’s fellow professionals. “The New York Timeshad performed brilliantly during the election campaign (of 2016): it had done everything you could ask of a serious newspaper,” he contends, though that’s not entirely true. The Times did lots of good reporting — but, as several analyses of the paper’s coverage have since demonstrated, it also overemphasized the Hillary Clinton email story and underplayed a federal investigation into connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.
And yet, in this absurd era of ours, there’s some solace to be found in the excellent work being done in traditional media, and in newer spaces, too. We’re getting comprehensive newspaper investigations into Trump’s sketchy development deals, deeply researched podcasts about his tax-avoidance maneuvers and invaluable online reporting about his administration’s daily assaults on truth. Each is a product of what Rusbridger calls “the patient accumulation of facts,” which we really need, right now and always.
The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now
By Alan Rusbridger
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 440 pages; $30)