Margaret Sullivan discusses her life as a journalist and the struggle of the press to save itself and American democracy in this memoir and manifesto.
Sullivan began her career at the Buffalo News, where she rose from summer intern to editor in chief. In Newsroom Confidential she chronicles her years in the trenches battling sexism and throwing elbows in a highly competitive newsroom. In 2012, Sullivan was appointed the public editor of The New York Times, the first woman to hold that important role. She was in the unique position of acting on behalf of readers to weigh the actions and reporting of the paper’s staff, parsing potential lapses in judgment, unethical practices, and thorny journalistic issues. Sullivan recounts how she navigated the paper’s controversies, from Hillary Clinton’s emails to Elon Musk’s accusations of unfairness to the need for greater diversity in the newsroom. In 2016, having served the longest tenure of any public editor, Sullivan left for the Washington Post, where she had a front-row seat to the rise of Donald Trump in American media and politics.
With her celebrated mixture of charm, sharp-eyed observation, and nuanced criticism, Sullivan takes us behind the scenes of the nation’s most influential news outlets to explore how Americans lost trust in the news and what it will take to regain it.
Newsroom Confidential is a mix of memoir and manifesto by former Buffalo News editor in chief, New York Times public editor, and current Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan. Sullivan shares lessons from her career in journalism and her worries about the press’s role in American democracy.
I entered a giveaway for this book hoping for an inside look at journalism and newspapers today. While Sullivan does provide such a look, I do not think her experience is a typical one.
In the first part of Newsroom Confidential, Sullivan recounts how she became interested in journalism as well as her career. Although I enjoyed hearing how Watergate sparked her passion, I struggled with the other chapters about her career and rise. One glaring facet that Sullivan never mentions is the immense privilege from which she benefited. To be honest, I was a bit appalled. In addition, Sullivan was the first woman to hold several of her positions. While she mentioned these achievements, she never explored the impact and reverberations of these firsts. Instead, she simply toots her own horn.
I did enjoy reading about Sullivan’s position and tenure as the public editor at the New York Times, something I was unfamiliar with and now am upset has been eliminated.
In the second part of Newsroom Confidential, Sullivan discusses the role of the press, particularly in recent years, in politics and democracy. Here, her focus is largely around the run up to the 2016 presidential election and the Trump presidency. I found her insights poignant and informative. Sullivan clearly argues that in trying to be objective, journalists have given credence to insane ideas and lies. For me, this was the strongest section of the book.
The last part of Newsroom Confidential looks forward to the future of journalism and how we can set it on a better path. While I found her recommendations and prescriptions pertinent, the remaining chapters did not do much for me as they were specifically aimed at current and future journalists, rather than a general audience.
I think Sullivan’s writing in Newsroom Confidential may turn some potential readers away. While it was easy to listen to as an audiobook, it was rather plain, and at times, boring. For a book that is a memoir, the writing was very straight-forward and almost clinical. The exception to this was when Sullivan more passionately argues about the negative role journalism has played in recent years.
The last thing that bothered me about Newsroom Confidential was Sullivan’s absolute diplomacy in discussing her past work places and peers. Essentially, everyone she ever worked with was great. Sullivan failed to be at all critical, and in doing so, hindered her own credibility. Similar to her failure to address her own privilege, Sullivan is also soft on the embedded white male privilege and perspective in traditional journalism. This all left me questioning how much Newsroom Confidential actually reflects most individuals’ careers in journalism.
Overall, I enjoyed learning about the interworkings of major newspapers and better understanding the press’s role in a functioning democracy. However, I found was disappointed by Sullivan’s lack of critical honesty about her career and experiences. I do recommend Newsroom Confidential for its discussions on the role of mainstream media.
Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (And Worries) from an Ink-Stained Life
Nonfiction – Memoir
October 18, 2022
Note: I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads Giveaway. Regardless, I always provide a fair and honest review.