New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan has a new article on the Times’ coverage of the Amazon/Hachette standoff—“Publishing
Battle Should Be Covered, Not Joined”—in which, in her signature
firm-but-fair style, Sullivan admonishes Times reporter David Streitfeld for
his lopsided approach to the Amazon/Hachette standoff:
It’s important to remember
that this is a tale of digital disruption, not good and
evil. The establishment figures The Times has quoted on this issue, respected
and renowned though they are, should have their statements subjected to
critical analysis, just as Amazon’s actions should be. The Times has given a
lot of ink to one side and—in story choice, tone and display—helped to portray
the retailer as a literature-killing bully instead of a hard-nosed business.
I would like to see more
unemotional exploration of the economic issues; more critical questioning of
the statements of big-name publishing players; and greater representation of
those who think Amazon may be a boon to a book-loving culture, not its killer.
The whole article is well worth reading. Here, I’d like to
add just a few thoughts about the nature of the Streitfeldian tendentiousness
As always when questioning the methodology behind the Times’
coverage of a topic, Sullivan gives the reporters and editors she’s reviewing a
chance to explain themselves. Here’s how Streitfeld attempted to do so:
Mr. Streitfeld says his
stories have been driven by one value: newsworthiness. When established authors
band together against the largest bookseller, he says, “it’s just a great
story, period.” And he says that 900 of their signatures mean much more than “a
petition that’s open to anyone on the Internet.” To treat them as equal would
be false equivalency, he says… As for his own viewpoint, he says: “I am on no
side here. I view my role as opening up these questions.”
is unfailingly polite and charitable in her approach as Public Editor—so much
so that I almost feel a little bad about what I’m going to say next. Which is:
is full of shit.
don’t know whether he was lying to Sullivan or lying to himself. Probably some
strange combination. But the most cursory examination of his claims reveals
them to be embarrassingly indefensible. Let’s have a look and see why.
When established authors
band together against the largest bookseller, he says, “it’s just a great
as far as it goes, no doubt, but it’s wrong to end that sentence with a “period.”
Logically, there should be a conjunction, probably the word “and,” followed by
something along the lines of, “jeez, now that I think about it, IT’S ALSO A
GREAT STORY WHEN THOUSANDS OF AUTHORS ARE IN OPEN REBELLION AGAINST THE ‘BIG
FIVE’ PUBLISHING SYSTEM!”
Streitfeld won’t cover something this seismic… because it doesn’t involve
sufficiently “established” players? One story is automatically great, and the
other not even worth mentioning? Does that make any sense at all?
maybe, in a twisted way. You see, if you want to understand the real nature of Streitfeld’s
partisanship, it’s right there in that word: “established.”
by what? If it’s sales Streitfeld requires, he could have gone to Bella Andre,
Hugh Howey, Joe Konrath, Holly Ward, or other self-published authors whose
books have sold in the millions. If Streitfeldian “established” status requires some sort of Hollywood affirmation, that would be an equally easy
we can only surmise that by “established,” Streitfeld is referring to something
more akin to a club. You know, the important authors, the well-connected ones, the ones Streitfeld
quotes in the New York Times because… they get quoted in The New York Times.
there were a principle at work in Streitfeld’s attempted defense of his
shoddiness, it could be summed up as, “I only cover what the establishment
does, because that’s all that matters.”
“My job is to cover only the establishment” wasn’t even the least impressive aspect
of Streitfeld’s defense. This is worse:
And he says that 900 of
their signatures mean much more than “a petition that’s open to anyone on the
Internet.” To treat them as equal would be false equivalency, he says.
Really, it’s as though
Streitfeld writes a whole article about the massiveness of some guy’s four-inch
manhood, and then grudgingly, almost as an aside, mentions that, well, okay,
there was this guy John Holmes,
who was, admittedly, like three times bigger—but then immediately goes on to
note that, of course, by comparison to the Washington Monument, which is over
500 feet, Holmes’s endowment wasn’t really all that…
now Streitfeld sniffs that he couldn’t possibly
compare two competing petitions about the Amazon/Hachette dispute... because
doing so would be to engage in “false equivalency!”
said it before: the only way to describe bullshit this shameless is by calling
here’s the irony: when Streitfeld says he couldn’t properly discuss the two
Amazon/Hachette petitions due to his scrupulous concerns about equivalency, I
think he actually might be onto something. Because yes, one of the petitions—the
one that garnered only about 900 signatures—was amplified by a $100,000 full-page ad in the New York Times;
by broad and fawning media attention (exemplified by Streitfeld’s own love letters to Authors United and Hachette);
and through the efforts of establishment allies like the Authors Guild (better understood as the Publishers Guild). While the other letter—the one that has almost 9000 signatures—went out with no money, no
brand names behind it, no Streitfeldian press agent at the New York Times helping
get out the word, and no establishment allies. Its message spread via nothing
more than grass roots social media and word of mouth, and even so it wound up
with nearly 10x the support of the New York Times-backed, money-fueled
agreed, it’s hard to say the two should be “treated as equal.” They certainly
course, the whole “can’t treat them as equal,” “oh, that would be a false
equivalency” line of defense is just a dodge anyway. Because the point here
isn’t that X and Y are equal or even equivalent. The point is that context requires they be considered together.
Sure, if you’re possessed of a sufficiently elitist worldview, you could claim that
having relatively few establishment names on one petition gives that petition
more weight than having relatively many non-establishment names on another
petition. That would be distinguishing
the two petitions, which, even if reasonable people might disagree with the
distinction, would be a coherent and logically defensible approach. What isn’t
coherent or logically defensible is first ignoring one of the petitions entirely, and then comparing it
(in the name of avoiding false equivalency!) with another petition on a
completely unrelated topic.
in mind, too, that this is the same guy who claimed in the Times that “Amazon defenders are greatly outnumbered by critics” (my emphasis),
who ignored my request for evidence of that dubious
proposition, who ignored Amazon’s #1 reputation ranking (a fairly astonishing achievement if Streitfeld is right that the company’s defenders are outnumbered by its critics), and who is
now ignoring even more actual evidence demonstrating the reverse of what he
claimed—because… False Equivalency!
don’t know how to explain bullshit this breathtaking. Is it cynical? Or clinical?
here, let’s see how Streitfeld’s justification for his reporting fares in
another context. Would he also explain exclusively quoting executives of
Goldman Sachs, while ignoring the efforts of Occupy Wall Street, because OWS is
“open to anyone”? Is that even a remotely coherent distinction for a reporter in
determining what matters? Or is it a means of ensuring coverage only for the
powerful and well-connected?
me try to put it one other way, on the remote chance that Streitfeld cares
enough about his professionalism, or at least the appearance of professionalism,
to listen to his critics:
Has Streitfeld ever written anything about Authors United
that Authors United would not itself have issued as a press release if it didn’t
have ready access to a pet reporter at the New York Times? Out of all Streitfeld’s coverage of the revolution in publishing over the last six months, Joe Konrath has identified one article that might—might—pass that test.
a word for that kind of uncritical coverage. No, not journalism.
as Orwell put it [thanks to everyone who pointed out that the following quote has been attributed to other people in addition to Orwell], “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed.
Everything else is public relations.” By this definition, is there a way to
conclude other than that Streitfeld has been doing Authors United’s PR work?
let’s try to be kind to Streitfeld here. Maybe what he means is, “the
anti-Amazon letter was only open to authors; the pro-Amazon letter was open to
anyone.” If that is indeed what he’s trying to say, he’s missing a pretty
important point: while the anti-Amazon letter is written only by authors but purports to be about what’s
best for readers, the pro-Amazon
letter was expressly intended to let readers speak for themselves about what
matters to them.
once again, if we do Streitfeld the courtesy of trying to accept that he
actually means what he says, he’s arguing that only authors (and, again, only ones
he considers to be “established”) matter. What readers (and non-establishment
authors) might want can’t—by definition—be a “great story.” It’s doesn’t even qualify
for baseline “newsworthiness.”
As for his own viewpoint, he
says: “I am on no side here. I view my role as opening up these questions.”
not taking sides” is exactly what Authors United constantly claims, even as
it takes out anti-Amazon ads in the New York Times; writes letters to Amazon’s
board of directors; and urges the Justice Department to investigate Amazon for
unspecified bad behavior. If that’s what Streitfeld means by “not taking sides,”
I think I’m beginning to understand how he could make such a claim with a
As for the rest of the dodge, does Streitfeld really not
understand that which questions he “opens up,” the way he asks them, and the
context he does or doesn’t provide, mean
everything with regard to whether he’s fundamentally being a journalist… or
fundamentally a propagandist? How is it even conceivable a New York Times
reporter could not understand something so axiomatic and obvious?
This, by the way, is the one place where I thought Sullivan went too far in her attempt to be compassionate to the subject of her criticism—in saying the word “‘propaganda’ is a stretch.” In fact, I defy you to read
this Joe Konrath post exhaustively analyzing dozens of Streitfeld’s Greatest Hits and to conclude other than that Streitfeld is a propagandist.
Look, two quick examples, both from just his latest screed,
though there are countless others. When Streitfeld quotes “established author”
Ursula K. Le Guin saying Amazon is trying to “disappear” authors and to
“dictate what authors can write,” what mysterious force prevents him from
asking, “What do you mean, ‘disappear?’ After all, every one of those authors,
and every one of their titles, is still available through Amazon. And if Amazon
is trying to ‘dictate what authors can write,’ how do you explain Kindle Direct
Publishing, which unlike anything in traditional publishing allows all authors
to publish whatever they like?”
Oh, all right, just one more. When Streitfeld quotes establishment literary agent Andrew Wylie saying, “If Amazon is not stopped, we are facing the end of literary culture in America,” what mysterious force prevents Streitfeld from inquiring, “What the hell does that even mean? What, specifically, do you think needs to be ‘stopped,’ and how do you propose stopping it? How do you define ‘literary culture’? How, precisely, will literary culture—whatever the hell that means—be ended by Amazon?”
Or look, even if Streitfeld is too ignorant and/or thoughtless to come up with these obvious questions himself, what mysterious force prevents him from—at the
barest minimum—contacting someone with a different viewpoint to pressure-check
claims as bizarre and facially suspect as Le Guin’s and Wylie’s?
Come on. This isn’t “opening up questions.” It’s taking
Or, as David Gregory infamously put it in
response to a question about whether the media did its job in the run-up to
America’s 2003 Iraq war:
I think there are a lot of
critics who think that… if we did not stand up and say this is bogus, and
you’re a liar, and why are you doing this, that we didn’t do our job. I
respectfully disagree. It’s not our role.
It’s amazing that someone could self-identify as a
journalist while simultaneously claiming it’s not his job to point out that the government is lying. It’s at least equally amazing that Streitfeld would proudly adopt the
same philosophy the establishment media brought to bear on covering the
bogus claims that led to catastrophe in Iraq. Is he stupid? In denial? Ineducable?
I don’t know how else to explain to someone who seems so
willfully myopic. Look, if Le Guin or whoever breathlessly claimed that Amazon was, say,
“assassinating” authors, would it occur to Streitfeld to ask, “Hmmm, what do
you mean by that?” Or would he just type it up, send it in, and go for a beer?
Or, as Stephen Colbert so
memorably put it at the whorefest popularly known as the White House
President makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces
those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make,
announce, type. Just put ’em through a spell check and go home. Get to know
your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking
around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter
with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!
I’d almost rather that Streitfeld knows he’s acting as a legacy-publishing
shill and is just trying to hide it. In some ways, it would be worse if he
really believed all the lame excuses he trotted out to Sullivan. Worse, because
the first step toward solving a problem is acknowledging its existence. Salute
to Sullivan for providing at least a start on the intervention Streitfeld so
badly requires. But it’s hard to be optimistic he’ll become a better journalist
because of it.