Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of the New York Times and now a Harvard professor, is widely regarded as a heavyweight in media circles. She has a new book coming out next month called Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts which covers the changing media landscape by following the Times, the Washington Post, Vice, and Buzzfeed from the early 2010s to today.
But early reports from those who spoke with her for the work suggest that may not have been the best title for a book that doesn’t seem to have been subject to even basic fact-checking. As review copies of the book started to circulate, several of the journalists quoted in it have pointed out that it was riddled with factual errors and misreported information, some of which is used to push Abramson’s narrative that the new digital media giants of the early 2010s did everything from recklessly putting reporters in dangerous, hostile environments to prioritizing diversity and a perceived trendiness over reporting qualifications when hiring.
Here’s one of the simplest errors: Charlottesville is not in North Carolina.
In that same paragraph, several Vice journalists noted other weird inaccuracies. Elle Reeve, the correspondent whose coverage of Charlottesville won four Emmys, pointed out that she spoke on the phone, not a “secure Slack channel,” with the white nationalist leader Chris Cantwell, who Abramson characterized as “southern” when he’s actually from Long Island.
These are basic factual errors, which happen. But they’re the kinds of things that editors and fact-checkers are employed to catch. Unfortunately, as other writers on Twitter pointed out, the burden of fact-checking often falls to the author themselves, with others saying they sometimes have to pay out-of-pocket to make sure their books are fact-checked. (I’ve emailed both Simon & Schuster and Abramson to ask if there was a fact-checking process in place for Merchants of Truth. I’ll update this post if I hear back.)
But the inaccuracies in Merchants of Truth aren’t just innocent goofs. Other journalists claimed Abramson lied or otherwise misrepresented information to draw comparisons between legacy media companies and newer digital operations. Danny Gold, a former Vice correspondent, said Abramson misrepresented his experience reporting on the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in the book:
The description appeared in a section of the book describing the hiring process for new correspondents after Josh Tyrangiel took over and dramatically restructured Vice News in 2016. Duhaime-Ross said Abramson portrayed her as poorly qualified for her role as an environmental correspondent, saying she had “no background in environmental policy” despite the fact that she had a masters’ degree from NYU’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.
As Jay Caspian Kang pointed out on Twitter, Abramson basically appeared to make sweeping assumptions about Vice’s new hires based on their haircuts.
Gold told Splinter that he emailed with Abramson privately after his initial Twitter thread, and that she “offered a mealy mouthed apology which included factual errors itself.”
There’s more: Benjamin Shapiro, another former Vice host, tweeted that Abramson claimed he paid audience members to appear on his Viceland show Business of Life. Another staffer noted she referred to laid-off workers as “trustafarians” at one point in the book. (I’ve requested a digital copy from Simon & Schuster).
Merchants of Truth comes out Feb. 5. So far, most of the pushback has come from Vice staffers, but if there are this many inaccuracies, it’ll be interesting to see what current and former employees at other outlets like BuzzFeed have to say about the book. It’s not shocking that Abramson would be heavily biased toward the legacy media outlets she spent her whole career working for, but manufacturing a narrative by mangling other people’s stories goes beyond the pale. Abramson made her name as an editor, but in this project, it sure looks like she could have used one.