I have just finished Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now by Alan Rusbridger.
Based on the title, you might think this book is all about Donald Trump and his attempt to sell the idea that the press is the “enemy of the people.” While the Trump menace to freedom of the press is mentioned, the book is not mainly about that. It’s about the process by which The Guardian, one of the UK’s most storied newspapers, has navigated, with varying success, the rocky path from the traditional ways of journalism to the world brought about by the internet and the digital globalization of information.
Rusbridger is not a household name in the United States like, perhaps, Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post. Rusbridger was editor-in-chief of The Guardian from 1995 to 2015, the seminal period during which the digital challenge to top-down journalism manifested and ran roughshod over traditional ways of delivering the “news.” He is, among other things, a hell of a great writer and a compelling storyteller who confesses throughout that he was usually at a loss to know what to do to save The Guardian from financial destruction and from loss of its moral compass.
Rusbridger’s book is a remarkable explanation of the transition from a news operation funded by a trust, but still dependent upon advertising revenues for survival, to a multi-element news machine adapting to the digital age. Some of the financial details may challenge your interest, but the overall story line is as powerful as anything in great fiction. But, of course, it’s not fiction, not fake news, but truth.
Along the way, Rusbridger explores the meaning of “news” in a digital world, how news is discovered, vetted for importance and interest, and delivered to a global audience still interested in “truth” mediated by trusted investigators, writers, editors and publishers. He narrates the stories of Wikileaks (Julian Assange) and Edward Snowden and the issues their pilfered documents raised about what was responsible to publish, how governments attempted to prevent publication and much else. Readers from my generation will, of course, remember Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers, the New York Times and the ultimate victory in court that enabled the world to understand how the United States government had misled the people about the Vietnam War. Even then, the Nixon administration tried to imprison Neal Sheehan under the Espionage Act for his journalism in breaking the story.
The struggle over the Snowden documents was no less dramatic with the special twist – something I did not know – that the United Kingdom has no equivalent to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing freedom of the press. In the UK publishers, editors and even individual journalists are subject to lawsuits by “offended” parties, including giant corporations, who object to unfavorable news being published about them. Even members of Parliament and the British government itself were ominously threatening to punish difficult publish/don’t publish decisions about matters to which they took serious umbrage. Editors could go to jail for publishing the “wrong stories.”
Early in the book, Rusbridger discusses the period during which UK competitors of The Guardian began to dumb down their news to attract eyes, with considerable success and adverse effects on more traditional news organization that continued to publish in the old style. The conflict is described as “an ongoing concern for complexity, facts and nuance versus a drift towards impact, opinion and simplicity.” [Breaking News at 91] In ruminating about the divergent paths before them, Rusbridger raises question to which no ready answers existed at the time or even now [Id. at 92-93]
“What … should a news organization do, faced with legions of apathetic readers?
Did we have any kind of responsibility to tell our readers things they might not think they wanted to know?
Would a move to less complexity end up reinforcing a pattern of ignorance, or carelessness about things that ultimately do matter to us all? … Most of public life was not faithfully representable in either black or white. Somebody – surely – had the duty to paint in the greys.
Fast-forwarding to the second decade of this century, Rusbridger observes that “an ever-more polarized public – favouring either black or white answers to complicated problems – had lost either interest or trust in a world of greys.”
Another interesting observation lies in the discussion of the “long tail” of news. In traditional newspaper journalism, the story was developed during the day, published late and delivered for morning consumption. The story was effectively “over” until at least the next day’s paper was distributed. In the digital world of social media, however, “a story had a life independent of the news organization which created it.” Breaking News at 157. The story “was now a living thing – being shared, critiqued, rubbished, celebrated, clarified, responded to, rendered irrelevant, added to, challenged – maybe all of the above – while [the reporter] was trying to take a well-earned break.”
The battle that ensued after The Guardian published some of Snowden’s documents led many UK papers to line up against The Guardian. Rusbridger listed a series of legal challenges over the years to newspapers’ publication of controversial material, almost always sustained by the courts. Rusbridger:
“Journalists may often make wrong decisions – but the assumption has to be that newspapers are free to make those wrong decisions and, if necessary, be held responsible afterwards. It was so strange to see writers and editors in 2013 willing to concede this principle when judges had, in general, been so much more robust in their defence of the press.” [Breaking News 321]
The attacks on The Guardian will look familiar to anyone paying attention to the rhetoric of Donald Trump who, in his paranoid desperation to deflect criticism, has labeled the press the “enemy of the people.” Rusbridger discusses that and the issue of “fake news” at length in the Epilogue to the book. Of course, his views will be of no interest to people who have forfeited their ability to think in favor of abject adoration of everything Trump. For the rest, though, whom I still believe to be the majority, the centrality of a free press to the survival of democracy will resonate. The current challenge to genuine journalism is deadly serious, one among many such threats that now arise from the kleptocracy that Trump and his family, with full support of the Republican Party, seeks to establish in the United States.
The story of The Guardian is our story as well and should be read by everyone who cares about the survival of democracy and personal freedom in America.