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 Sullivan criticizes.
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.”
Sullivan 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:
Streitfeld is full of shit.
I 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 story, period.”
True 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!”
Think about that for a second. Even just five years ago, it was hard to find authors publicly criticizing publishers (though if you hung out at a writers conference bar, you’d hear little but). But now? Authors publicly excoriating abusive and otherwise suboptimal legacy practices are everywhere. A guerilla group called AuthorEarnings is providing data that’s never been available to authors before. So many authors are criticizing the establishment-revering “Authors Guild” for in fact being a Publishers Guild that the AG has taken to censoring comments on its blog. An entire shadow industry has sprung up and is rattling the legacy industry like nothing its ever known.
And 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?
Well, 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.”
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 hurdle.
So 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.
(For more on the elitist and aristocratic assumptions behind the Streitfeldian establishment-centric worldview, I recommend this thoughtful piece by Clay Shirky.)
If 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.”
This is a reporter who has strayed a long, long way from the fundamental notion that journalism is intended to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
But “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.
Holy shit! This is the guy who compared a petition to Hachette in favor of “low prices and fair wages” with a petition to Amazon against “the sale of whale, dolphin, and porpoise meat”—thereby gifting the lexicon with the derisive new phrase, “Whale Math.” As I said at the time:
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…
And 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!”
I’ve said it before: the only way to describe bullshit this shameless is by calling it Streitfeldian.
But 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 anti-Amazon effort.
So agreed, it’s hard to say the two should be “treated as equal.” They certainly weren’t.
Of 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.
Bear 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!
I don’t know how to explain bullshit this breathtaking. Is it cynical? Or clinical?
Or 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?
Let 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.
There’s a word for that kind of uncritical coverage. No, not journalism.
Or, 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?
Look, 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.
So 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.”
Hilariously, “We’re 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 straight face.
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 dictation.
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? Some combination?
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 Correspondents’ Dinner:
The 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.