A top editor’s sombre look at the growing threats to journalism

|     Marvin Kalb     |

WASHINGTON (The Washington Post) – Alan Rusbridger ends his sombre, in many ways alarming memoir with an odd admission, considering that he has already asked his readers to make their way through more than 300 pages. “This is a story half told,” he confesses. “There is no ending, happy or otherwise.” He seems to be saying we are in the midst of huge, unpredictable, revolutionary change: We know where we’ve been, we don’t know where we’re heading.

Looking back, after more than 40 years in journalism, 20 of them as editor in chief of the Guardian, Rusbridger has settled on a few conclusions designed to leave you decidedly uneasy:

– Newspapers have begun “to die in front of our eyes”;

– The “centuries old craft of journalism” has withered and is being “lost”;

– The concept of truth has become difficult, if not impossible, to define;

– Democracy has lost its bearings and without “reliable news” faces a fight for survival;

– And, finally, the Internet and its “untaxed, rootless” global family of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon (whose founder, Jeffrey P Bezos, owns The Washington Post) and Twitter, what many call GAFAT, have triggered a technological upheaval that rivals “the invention of movable type in the fifteenth century” – “liberating, energising and transformative” on the one hand, but also “poisonous and dangerous” on the other, capable of being turned into “toxic demagoguery.” He implies that President Trump is a prime example of such demagoguery, but doesn’t quite say so.

This has all happened in the past 20 years, the new explosion of information replacing not only the old journalism but also, Rusbridger writes, “the most basic concepts of authority and power”- in a way, democracy itself. How has this happened? Never before, Rusbridger explains, has there been a technology that allowed “the instant dissemination of lies in such infinite volumes.” Reporters have simply been overwhelmed; they can’t keep up with the lies, and the demagogues, whoever they were, have won the day.

When Rusbridger, considered by many to be the most consequential British newspaper editor of his time, chooses to share this gloomy prognosis, it seems to me it’s our collective responsibility to seriously ponder his story and his conclusions.

His story, eloquently told, started in 1976, when, fresh from university studies, he joined the staff of the Cambridge Evening News, a local paper that then sold nearly 50,000 copies a day and today sells fewer than 15,000 a week. Advertising used to subsidise reporting. No longer. Now Google and Facebook absorb more than 60 per cent of the advertising dollar, and newspapers suffer, often unable to find alternative sources of income.

But in 1979, when Rusbridger stepped up to the Guardian, which he describes as a “comparatively small British newspaper … a minnow,” newspapering was still a profitable business. The Guardian was liberal and respected, and Rusbridger was smart, ambitious and daring, quickly ascending to his editor in chief responsibilities in 1995. Under his leadership, the Guardian’s reputation soared, as it began to register one substantial scoop after another.

Emphasising investigative reporting, Rusbridger went where other British publications feared to tread. With apparent delight, he tells how his reporters brought down the rising career of Jonathan Aitken, a Conservative lawmaker who might have been prime minister had it not been for his illegal shenanigans with Saudi princes. The Guardian also toppled cabinet ministers, enjoying not only the headlines but also its rising profits. A story with global impact was reporter Nick Davies’ patient investigation of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid News of the World. What he learned, and what the Guardian published, was that News of the World was engaged in police bribery and phone hacking; it even hacked into the phone of a murdered English teenager, Milly Dowler. The Guardian’s exclusive, which made headlines all over the world, led to a parliamentary investigation and, soon thereafter, the closing of the tabloid and the reorganisation of the Murdoch news empire.

But for American readers, no story stimulated as much interest, confusion and pain as the Edward Snowden scandal, published in 2013. Snowden, at age 29 a contractor at the National Security Agency, so hermetically sealed that it was jokingly referred to as No Such Agency, decided to steal tens of millions of top-secret NSA files and flee to Hong Kong. Rusbridger, with a dash of pride, writes, “Such a leak had never happened before.” Obviously believing the Guardian to be a good candidate for publicising his illegal haul, Snowden established contact with a reporter for the newspaper and through him got to Rusbridger himself. He also contacted a reporter affiliated with The Washington Post. Soon the papers had possession of the scoop of the year: proof that the US government operated a programme of widespread global surveillance that also captured massive amounts of private data from Americans.

It was a story without precedent – big, embarrassing, Pulitzer Prize-winning. The two newspapers shared the Pulitzer for public service in 2014 for their reporting on the subject. Rusbridger became a global journalistic icon, and the Guardian made lots and lots of money, until it stopped making lots of money in 2015. Ads migrated from its pages to Google and Facebook, along with the profits that once enabled adventurous, groundbreaking reporting, leaving the Guardian, and all of journalism, struggling to survive in the powerful undercurrent of a technological revolution without rules or end.

Rusbridger closes his jarring commentary by wondering whether Trump, with his “prolific lies, and his bullying menace,” might be awakening the public to the obvious need for a new and vibrant press. Sadly, the evidence runs the other way. More Americans today think the press is “fake” and “dishonest” than ever before, with more than 35 per cent believing it is, in fact, the “enemy of the people.”