Margaret Sullivan’s case for the outsider

If Sullivan’s case in “Newsroom Confidential” is any proof, insiders aren’t a lost cause either.
A headshot of Margaret Sullivan.

During the first few weeks of her job as media columnist for The Washington Post, Margaret Sullivan was roiling with anxiety:

“I didn’t feel like I had much to offer,” she writes in her memoir, Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) from an Ink-Stained Life. “I was having serious doubts about the choice I’d made, and I was feeling the pressure to prove myself. Soon.”

Despite possessing the bona fides of a Big Journalism insider, Sullivan considers herself an outsider of sorts in the journalism world, an identity she has worked hard to preserve, and which she seems to believe has the power to fix the way the American public interacts with the media. 

Before The Post, Sullivan was the second to last New York Times public editor before the position was eliminated. In her memoir, she reveals that former Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger offered an extension to her four-year term, which she declined: “After three years of arriving at 620 Eighth Avenue, seeing the same writers and editors every day – usually on a friendly and collegial basis– and eating at the same cafeteria, I was starting to lose the outsiders’ mentality. Or at least I feared I was.”

The “outsiders’ mentality” allowed her to write the incisive columns that held Times journalists accountable for their missteps and misjudgments: the tendency toward cynicism and sarcasm, the instinct to treat political campaigns like a horse race, the practice of access journalism (including quote approval and anonymous sources), and the desire for coverage to appear objective and unbiased, even if that means airing positions that are not rooted in fact. Many of these patterns, she said, are endemic to the way Big Journalism has hastened the public’s declining trust in media. 

Though Sullivan claims an “outsiders’ mentality,” I’d call her an Outsider In Name Only; her career is a legacy of glass-ceiling breaking and big-name employers: first woman editor-in-chief of the Buffalo News, first woman public editor of the New York Times, former Washington Post media columnist and current professor of journalism at Duke. Before that, she got her master’s degree at Northwestern’s Medill Journalism School, and went to undergrad at Georgetown. The insider peeks through her writing when she talks about former Post editor Marty Baron, not a friend exactly, but a professional colleague on a friendly enough level to ask to lunch.

Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) from an Ink-Stained Life

by Margaret Sullivan

St. Martin’s Press, 288

When writing about former Post reporter Felicia Sonmez’s lawsuit against The Post, she tempers her sympathy for Sonmez’s case with her own perspective as a former top editor: “I felt torn. I had a great deal of loyalty to Baron and some of the other editors, whose journalism I admired and who had treated me supportively … as a former top editor myself, who had dealt with thorny staff complaints, I could imagine how awful it would be to be sued by an unhappy employee and to have my every intemperate remark or ill-considered email made public.”

Still, her sympathy for those on the outside of Big Journalism culture shines through more often; she expresses sympathy for staffers pushing for greater diversity within newsrooms: “Often, I was on the side of what was disparagingly and falsely called the ‘woke mob’ – the younger, more diverse staffers who were supposedly running roughshod through Big Journalism’s newsrooms.” Sullivan was able to jump the chasm of age, race, and background to sympathize with the concerns staffers raised about the way newsrooms operated, including her own. 

I was once a member of the so-called “woke mob” at The Post. My time there — two years in my early twenties — was fraught and brief. I frequently came up against The Post’s Way of Doing Things, as my poor managers explained to me in gently chastising meetings. My years there taught me that just because someone is a woman, or young, or a person of color, they are not necessarily an ally. What mattered more was how much they bought into the explicit and implicit rules of conduct at The Post: An allegiance to the newsroom hierarchy — a belief in the supremacy of reporters over any other kind of staffer — a preference for the traditional over the experimental, and above all, a commitment to the appearance of objectivity. 

This is true of any legacy newsroom, especially those with long-serving reporters and editors, huge staffs, and collections of Pulitzers on their walls. They’re slow-moving ships that want to protect themselves by preserving their culture, whether it’s how they turn in their copy or how they engage with their sources. And the collision of the old guard and the new generation of journalists demanding change is responsible for significant tension — and for many journalists from marginalized backgrounds to leave the industry altogether. 

I took a step away from traditional journalism in 2017, right at the beginning of Trump’s presidency, and watched from the sidelines as political polarization became more extreme and basic facts and their solutions were suddenly up for debate. I assumed that because I couldn’t find a steady place at The Post, perhaps I didn’t belong in traditional journalism at all. I wasn’t a straight, white man, I didn’t go to the fancy schools, didn’t even major in journalism, didn’t have a traditional background in reporting, and I have no interest in holding tight to the performance of objectivity, though I do believe in fair, open-minded, transparent reporting. 

But now, I wonder if my interpretation was correct. Sullivan includes recommendations to improve public trust in journalism as a nonpartisan and unbiased democratic institution. Of the four recommendations, the last one struck me: “Stop being ‘savvy’ – filled with smug insider knowledge – and start being patriotic.” Journalism is so often treated as a game, a competition for scoops, for clicks, for supremacy in online discourse, for prizes to hang on a wall. Buying in too deeply to an insider’s point of view can end in being trapped in the game without considering who the true winners and losers are.

Moving past this moment of low public trust in the media will require a greater permeability between the outside and the inside. We need outsiders, the people who hold no allegiance to the myths that have buoyed the industry for so long. Those who can approach the problem with new eyes, and let go of the identification with the way things were in favor of the way things could be. And if Sullivan is any proof, the insiders aren’t a lost cause either. 

Alex Sujong Laughlin is the producer of Normal Gossip and was previously the writer and editor of Poynter’s The Cohort.

This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider.

Correction: Due to an editing error, this piece initially named Sullivan as the last public editor of the Times. Elizabeth Spayd was the last public editor.

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