As a longtime contributor to legacy news organizations, former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson wanted to learn how new media outlets — like BuzzFeed and VICE — solidified themselves so quickly as authorities in digital literacy. So, to find out, she wrote a book.
In a conversation hosted by the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism Friday, Abramson discussed her reasons for writing the controversial book, as well as what she has learned in her over 40 years as a journalist.
“Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts,” which was released on Feb. 5, follows four media outlets — The New York Times, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed and VICE News — as they adapt to changing journalistic standards in the 21st century. In the last two months, however, the book has been subject to numerous claims of plagiarism.
Several journalists took their concerns to Twitter, highlighting passages in Abramson’s book that appeared to have been copied and pasted with little to no attribution and contained factual errors that several interview subjects said she never clarified with them. VICE correspondent Arielle Duhaime-Ross tweeted that Abramson incorrectly referred to her as a transgender woman in the book.
“I’m not trans,” Duhaime-Ross wrote on Twitter on Jan. 14. “During our chat, I told her I’m a queer, gender non-conforming woman. She didn’t ask for an explanation. She didn’t ask for my pronouns.”
In the conversation with Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy director Geoffrey Cowan and School of Journalism director Gordon Stables, Abramson said she does not think the accusations have damaged her credibility or the book’s.
“When you make a mistake … if it’s making something up … that clearly is a firing offense,” Abramson said. “But short of that, what is the proper thing to do? Correct something right away.”
Abramson said she has made numerous corrections in the book’s online version, which will be reflected in the printed second edition. Copies of the first edition were available to purchase for signing after the event.
Abramson also claimed that VICE mounted an opposition campaign against her book. Abramson did not acknowledge that the claims of plagiarism did not only come from VICE reporters.
“I’ve called almost all of the people who I knew were mad from VICE,” Abramson said. “Some of those were painful conversations. I was sincerely sorry. I take responsibility for these errors — I take them very seriously.”
Abramson began working at The New York Times in 1997, and served as executive editor from 2011 to 2014. Prior to the Times, she wrote for TIME Magazine, The American Lawyer and The Wall Street Journal. Abramson, who was the Times’ first female executive editor, spoke about her experiences with sexism in the workplace.
“When you get to the top, there’s a real double standard,” Abramson said. “The very qualities that women are blasted for having when they get to be number one are seen as leadership qualities in men … When you get to the top job, your likability … goes plummeting.”
Abramson was fired in 2014 for various management issues and for allegedly lying to New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger during her search for a new co-managing editor. After her termination, Abramson said she became interested in understanding how young news organizations operate in a period of technological innovation.
“[The New York Times] was kind of dripping with envy for these new, shiny digital news startups, specifically BuzzFeed and VICE,” Abramson said. “I wanted to see, have these new digital startups really figured it all out? … And are they providing quality news?”
Abramson said she was curious about how non-legacy news outlets developed their standards, ethics and training for a new crop of diverse, young journalists. Abramson, who is currently a lecturer in Harvard University’s English department, also expressed concern about current journalism students’ ability to learn the importance of high-quality reporting.
“For you students, the survival of quality news — well-reported, where journalists have done everything to dig up the truth — is really in danger now,” Abramson said.
While she agrees that Trump’s anti-press rhetoric has contributed to the further polarization of media and demonization of journalists, Abramson said she is even more worried about the state of democracy.
“I don’t like to talk about these things as ‘us poor journalists,’” Abramson said. “It’s not about the journalists. It’s about democracy and the health of democracy.”