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Media in the age of Trump

Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts by Jill Abramson, Simon & Schuster, US $30.00, Pp 534, February 2019, ISBN 978-1501123207

Mainstream media in the United States feels to have come under threat from several sides that include the social media, the upstart media and, lately, President Trump who never tires of calling it the Fake News Media. The digitalization of the media nearly killed two respected newspapers with a dedicated but aging readership while gave birth to two new media giants with a fickle but younger readership. In Merchants of Truth, former Executive Editor of the New York Times Jill Abramson discusses the cases of two mainstream newspapers and two upstarts — The New York Times, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed and Vice — over a decade of revolutionary changes and challenges and discusses how they are enduring the new technology and new standards at a time when media is facing unprecedented challenges to their freedom.

The biggest challenge mainstream media is facing is the monetary crisis. Global news-gathering is extremely expensive. Jill Abramson says that the kinds of investigative stories that can win Pulitzers take months to report, take still more time to edit and make legally bulletproof, and they are ever more costly. Editors have to safeguard accuracy and fairness. If a big story breaks and they need to scramble helicopters to flood the zone with reporters, they cannot agonize over budgets. She says that the very qualities these prizes are meant to recognize have come under threat. She says that the editors and reporters who covered the presidential election never suspected that voters would bring to power a man who cast them as agents of evil — the fake news media. At Donald Trump’s rallies, his supporters jeered the campaign reporters behind their ropes. Everything these journalists cared about is under attack.

In the Trump era, the news wars are no longer the stuff of lofty discussion on public TV and in journalism classes. They are center stage every day. Jill argues that the man who vilifies the media as “enemies of the people” is, in fact, a creature of the media. His rise to fame in New York was fueled by tabloid newspapers such as the New York Post and the New York Daily News. He worked these outlets, all the while stewing that the New York Times and other mainstream media organizations scorned him. Later, he built a national profile as a master of reality TV. The paradox of Trump’s view of the media only deepened after his election. As he tried to delegitimize traditional news organizations, sometimes successfully, he wound up energizing them and helping drive new subscriptions.

Jill Abramson says that the climate for creating the kind of journalism the First Amendment was intended to protect, the stories that held powerful people and institutions to account, has grown visibly chillier. This process had started much before President Trump entered the White House. During President Barak Obama’s administration, there were more criminal leak investigations. Though the New York Times and the Washington Post each had exposed classified operations eavesdropping on citizens and secret overseas prisons where terror suspects were tortured, sources and whistleblowers inside the government clammed up, fearful of prosecution. Reporters were forced to testify and reveal their secret sources and were threatened with jail time for refusing to comply with coercive subpoenas. Jill Abramson argues that Obama White House rivaled Nixon’s for secrecy.

In this fascinating study of media in the digital age, Merchants of Truth, Jill Abramson asks and tries to answer several questions such as these: Can the weakened traditional news organizations still carry out the mission the Founders intended for a free press? Have the tempting rewards for entertaining the public eclipsed the media’s duty to inform? Will a business model emerge and support quality news-gathering — and not certain billionaire owners? Can trust in the news media be restored when the president calls it fake news?

In addition to being under several threats, the mainstream American media is undergoing a major transformation. Jill has thoroughly discussed the threats and challenges the media faces as it undergoes a transformation. Merchants of Truth is a heart-breaking story of the media for those who care for freedom of speech. It is a futuristic book that discusses the future of the press and freedom of expression. It is a meticulously researched and brilliantly written book that will interest everyone who cares for truth and freedom of expression. It is packed with knowledge and personal anecdotes that make it even more interesting to read.

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