The former executive editor of The New York Times tells the story of the news industry in her new book Merchants of Truth. Jill Abramson traces the past ten years of four major news outlets and their prospective futures in the face of rapidly changing technologies, shifting business models, and a president who almost daily assails the mainstream media as fake news. She spoke with long-time friend and colleague, investigative reporter Jane Mayer.
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>> You're listening to Library Talks, a podcast from the New York Public Library. I'm your host, Aidan Flax-Clark. On the show today is Jill Abramson, she's a former executive editor at the New York Times and now a senior lecturer at Harvard. And earlier this year she published a book called Merchants of Truth, the Business of News and the Fight For Facts. In it she looks at how four different newsrooms are dealing with the rapid pace of technological change that seems to be upending journalism by the day. She looked at two classic newsrooms, the New York Times and the Washington Post and two newer newsrooms, BuzzFeed and Vice. And in that process she also tells the story of her very public firing from the New York Times. Now if you're familiar with this book one possible reason is that when it came out Abramson caught a lot of heat for it. She was criticized for inaccuracies, misstatements and even plagiarism. While fortunately for us and for you we invited her to talk about it with Jane Mayer. Jane Mayer is not only one of the greatest investigative reporters in the country and also a winner of the Library's Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism twice. She's also a very old friend of Abramson's, they went to middle school together. And they also wrote a really great book together about Anita Hill in the Clarence Thomas trial. Here's their conversation. Jill Abramson talking about her book, Merchants of Truth with Jane Mayer.
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>> So it's great to be here with you tonight and this book I have to say is wonderful, it's really well written and of course because Jill did it really well reported. So I highly recommend it and. So I wanted to start with some of the inside knowledge I have about Jill.
>> Uh oh.
>> Which is, that I know that this library in particular holds a certain kind of significance for her. And there was a moment I believe when, when you needed to find some kind of, an image of a place that was suppose to reduce the stress in your life just to think about it, would like to explain this on how the library fits in there?
>> Okay. This really dates to when I was both managing editor of the Times, which was 2003 to 2011 and then executive editor til 2014 and yeah the Times new building, you know designed by Renzo Piano, very beautiful, it's on 40th Street and 8th. So not a long walk to get over here and often I was just stressed to the max in those jobs. And there's was something I would walk, you know I would walk east and walk to, you know the front of the library to the beautiful big staircase and of course look at patients and fortitude and think you've got to get some of that girl.
>> Those lions were talking to you.
>> You know I would walk over here pretty frequently. And it, it really I think part of the calming affect of walking over here was that it also is a tie to my childhood. Because my mother was a huge reader and you know remedial reading teacher. And instilled in me and my sister, you know a reverence for books. But, oddly she didn't like to buy books and almost never bought a book. But what she loved to do was put a book on reserve at the library and it was like when the call came that her book was in, she like quivered with excitement. And so you know getting a library card our neighborhood branch was St. Agnes was like a very big milestone for me. I remember my mom taking me to get my library card. And then when I was in 6th grade, I was just beginning to be allowed to move around New York on my own and I came to what she always called the main branch. And I had to do a lot of research for a report on what was then called West Germany. And there are many categories that we had to research and write about and manufacturing was one of them. And I was at a loss. So you know I came here, I looked in the card catalog and of course there were many many cards, West Germany manufacturing and you know very specific. And you know I was inspired by the cards to do a big report on the manufacturing of cuckoo clocks.
>> Well so this.
>> It was a really good report I have to say but.
>> So this is where the investigative reporting career began.
>> Maybe so.
>> Who knew?
>> Maybe so.
>> And your father was in the garment trade in New York City. And your mom as you said was a huge volunteer in remedial reading but, so what made you decide to become a reporter? Was there some hero of yours that was doing it or something that you were reading? Or where did this come from?
>> Well partly it came from general nosiness. And then, you know Watergate was unfolding when I was in college. And I remember studying for my spring exams with a transistor radio listening to John Dean testify and I would actually go to a newsstand in the middle of Harvard Square and buy like four day old copies of the Washington Post for like six bucks, it was crazy. But, you know I was very just obsessed with the story and I wanted to see Woodward and Bernstein's stories for myself, there was of course no internet then, no cell phones, no ATM's.
>> Did you ever imagine or that you would wind up being the executive editor of the New York Times?
>> Never, I mean really never. You know I can remember at the, I was still in college and you know the New Hampshire and Massachusetts primaries were happening the year I graduated in 1975 to 76. And you know I remember being at the Sheraton Wayfair, you've been there, hotel in Manchester and you know I had been given an insignificant assignment like covering the campaign, I think of Sarge Shriver.
>> Who was this for? This was?
>> It was for, work as a stringer for Time Magazine. And I remember like looking at the bar at the Sheraton Wayfair and there was Johnny Apple of the Times and Germond and Wicover [assumed spelling], the only woman in the group was Mary McGrory. And I just remember I was standing in the back just thinking these were the most important people that night and that, with a certainty that I would never get to be one of them.
>> Well, you did write a book pretty early on about women who graduated from Harvard Law School right, so was this issue of women and their opportunities at work very much on your mind early on?
>> Yeah it was because, I mean oddly when I had this job for Time Magazine my boss, the bureau chief was a woman. But was, and she was a great boss, inspirational. But she's the only woman I ever worked for in my career. And when I became Washington Bureau Chief of the Times as the first woman she was working for Time in Hong Kong and she sent me a telegram saying she could hear the glass shattering all the way to Hong Kong. And you know I was conscious from the get go that, you know women had to battle for equal treatment, my freshman year in college was the first year that women were allowed to live in Harvard Yard. And not all the men were happy about that. And you know just, yeah was very much still, you know a young mans world and I don't think I had a single female professor. And that interested me and it concerned me and it made me mad. And I joined, like there was a feminist organization at Radcliffe and I joined immediately.
>> Well, we'll get to your book in a sec, but one, one line in it just to pull out in advance is, your description in the book about how you were fired at the Times as executive editor. And you say, I was, that you were not a stellar manager, but also that there was a double standard. And I guess I'm wondering, you know is that double standard, does it still exist as far as you are concerned both in the news world and also I'm thinking in politics with we've not got a bumper crop of democratic presidential contenders, several of whom are female. Is there a double standard still do you think?
>> I think there is.
>> And when is it going to end and how so?
>> You know I was interested that when the Times did its first front page story about Amy Klobuchar, they focused so much on what a mean boss she was. And you know there is this focus on style, the way women candidates speak, obviously still how they dress. It just, you know it's sort of a more personal set of criteria that comes up often. I think it's lessening but not gone. And you know I know when I, yeah I've been managing editor of the Times for eight years, so it isn't like people didn't know me. But, you know when you go after the top job and you get it and you're a female, there have been many studies showing that your likability goes drastically down. And that you're seen as pushy, and the b word and in men that just isn't so. Like the same kind of behaviors are seen as leadership in men.
>> I take it the b word is not boss.
>> Right. It rhymes with rich as Barbara Bush would say.
>> Okay so let's talk about this book. So what got you going on it, why did you want to do it and what surprised you in it?
>> You know why I wanted to do it is I felt like as managing editor I had focused like a laser on trying to help the newsroom transition from a print focus culture to a digital culture because that was going to be, you know print advertising was falling off a cliff, circulation was going down. And you know at that point people thought digital advertising would support our work that, that hasn't happened. But, shortly before I was fired the current publisher Arthur Greg Sulzburger wrote a document called the Innovation Report. And it concluded that The Times was very behind in, when compared especially to digital native news companies that we just were slogging. And so, you know I was kind of stung by that, I wasn't sure it was true. But I was fascinated to try and find out was it true. And you know what did this digital transition that had started full boar, you know obviously it began in the 90's, but really took off in 2007 when the iPhone was introduced. That's when Twitter began, that's when Facebook started, the news feed. So I kind of loved the idea of using a decade, you know 2007 to 2017 and to try to make a narrative out of, you know the transformation of the industry that both of us have devoted our careers to. So, you know as a template I had loved this book that David Halberstam wrote in 1979 called The Powers That Be. And he looked, you know at, he wrote a narrative about four news organizations at a point where his thesis was that the press had become too powerful, more powerful than even the political class in Washington. And you know I was obviously telling a very different story about, you know the struggle of most news companies to stay alive. And but I liked the idea of picking four and was encouraged to pick four by my great editor Alice Mayhew. And you know I struggled about which companies to write about, but I picked in the end for a tenure narrative two, you know newspapers that I think are irreplaceable institutions in our country that were struggling to become digital. And find a business model that would support the news gathering that they both do globally. And that was the New York Times and Washington Post. And then I wanted to do a deep dive on two all digital companies that had kind of come to news only recently but in the times as innovation report were written about with great kind of envy and admiration. So those were BuzzFeed and Vice, so it was two.
>> And so when you started doing the research, did you have a thesis about, you know the old news media was dead or at least dying and that this is, the future is the online upstarts or some other thesis and how did it all turn out?
>> I started maybe not completely with that thesis, but something close to it. I mean the Times shortly after my timeline, you know the Atlantic Magazine was predicting it would go bankrupt and the leaders of the Times went hat in hand to a Mexican billionaire to get a 250, you know million dollar loan. And you know it, times were tough and you know at that same time, you know the Graham's, Graham family was struggling to hold on to the Washington Post and they were looking at like seven years of losses. You know and had Don Graham and Katharine Weymouth, his niece who succeeded him as a publisher, had no idea, like how to turn it around. Which is why in the end they decided to sell the family jewel to Jeff Bezos because they felt they didn't have the answers and maybe he would. So Times and Post at the beginning of the book are struggling and you know Vice and BuzzFeed are discovering new purely digital methods of spreading content. And you know at BuzzFeed the founder Jonah Peretti was, you know the wizard of how to make information go viral. And Shane Smith at Vice got into video very early and the Times had struggled with how to get video and do it in a way that would attract an audience and was failing. But, Vice had all these YouTube channels that were attracting a huge audience of young people. And both companies eventually, like hired real reporters and started newsrooms and started in a very different style covering big news.
>> You know.
>> And you know it looked like they had audiences both of them bigger than the Times and the Post. I mean they used click bait of course to, you know build those audiences but, they were doing well and as I said kind of envied at the beginning. But, so I thought maybe that was my narrative but, after Trump's election the whole story turned around. And you know the Trump bump and I hope the desire of a lot of people to have reliable news after all the shenanigans in 2016 on Facebook and elsewhere, you know the Times and the Post both started getting, you know lots and lots of new paying subscribers, which have been so difficult for them in the beginning. I mean the mantra of the web was news wants to be free. So.
>> Well if news is free, then reporters are unemployed I can tell you that.
>> And so, you know one of the things I wondered before was, I mean first of all does President Trump, do you think have any idea that he's brought the enemies of the American people back to life? And, you know and or, and or, and has he really or the other thing I really wonder about is, with his almost daily assault on the credibility of the mainstream media, is he really helping or is he hurting, do you have any idea how worried should we be and you know or, I mean is this a, you know.
>> I mean the country is so polarized, it hurts with democrats and progressives and even moderate readers of news. But, it's manna from heaven for his base and you know Trump basically has run his presidency geared and pitched to his base, keeping the base solid. I amazed but his approval ratings went up, I guess after Mueller said there wouldn't be, you know criminal charges on, you know collusion and you know bar said, you know no criminal charges on obstruction. And you know his approval rating went up to 45% most recently. But, the other place I think he hurts is that trust in news media is at a very low point. And so his attacks exploit that. And I think make it harder to regain trust. But, you know 62% of adults in our country mainly see the news on their Facebook feeds. And of course the almighty algorithm feeds you what you like. So it creates these total filter bubbles where, you know if you're a Trump supporter and republican, you're only seeing, you know Fox News and other like minded publications. And you know if you don't like Trump and you're sharing, you know things about beta or mayor p, you're getting, you're seeing only news on Facebook that conforms to, you know your, that ideologies. So it's a very unhealthy ecosystem for like deeply reported authoritative news to appeal to a majority of Americans. You know lots of Americans feel like they're drowning in news and are not paying attention at all.
>> Well I know that the kind of stuff, work that we've done together on, for instance in Strange Justice our book about Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, took, it took us three, two of us three years to do that book. It was so rigorously reported and we went into it with open minds and would've come out whichever way the facts led, that was the kind of the orientation we had, we'd been reporters at the Wall Street Journal. And I know that you, you and I've talked about this, that you feel that there's a huge and urgent need for more slow news for people to take their time and really get the story behind the story and connect all the dots, not just throw all these dots out there.
>> So how are we going to do that, that can be a world of push alerts?
>> And Twitter.
>> And Twitter because you know Twitter creates the expectation that you're going to know what happened the instant it happens. Whether the story is true or not and things instantly go viral on.
>> Do you think reporters at the New York Times or anywhere else should be Tweeting?
>> Well I think that they, for the most part, you know I'm okay with tweets that point a larger audience to good articles in the Times but, I don't think it's wise for reporters on Twitter or on cable TV to be so opinionated. Because not that, you know I'm a very harsh critic of President Trump's too but, it sort of confirms what he says about, you know the Post, the Times, the networks that, you know they're totally stacked against him or lying about him.
>> And what, and how you feel about whether the Times and others should cover every tweet from him as well?
>> No I think the press in general is way to reactive to him and you know Donald Trump, I mean many of you who are New Yorkers know, he's been a master manipulator of the news media and knows exactly how to get attention and dominate the news cycle. He's brilliant at it. You know it's been amazing to me to see like as Mueller was finishing he was constantly tweeting about, you know no collusion, no collusion and so he was able to like set a bar where everyone was going to be, think he was exonerated if no collusion was found.
>> He framed the issue in a way that he could win it, right no matter what else was going on, that was no longer important because he framed it on the one thing that he thought he could win on.
>> And you know with his tweets or with outrageous policies he announces, he knows exactly how to dominate the news cycle morning, afternoon, night.
>> So what should?
>> I think The Apprentice, you know taught him some of that skill.
>> Well, I mean, so what do you think the Times and other really serious news organizations should do about not, how do you keep yourself from being manipulated when you, you have to cover the president, I know I've been a White House reporter myself and I was surprised when I was there as the White House reporter for the Wall Street Journal. The threshold was so low for what you wrote about, basically if the president burped you wrote about it. And so.
>> Or choked on a pretzel.
>> Or choked on a pretzel, well that's, actually a lot of it was a death watch the truth be told, pretzels included but, but, what, you know so what advice would you give and I also am curious how do you feel that, I mean one of the changes that the Times has been, that it's come outright since Trump's been elected and used the word lie to describe what he's.
>> Not often though.
>> Not often, every now and then.
>> Which is probably right cause.
>> So, so how would you, you know what, what advice for how to deal with all this?
>> I would definitely say lies, not in every headline and every story because it losses, it's the power of the word. But, I think it's fine to say lie and that more news organizations should do it. The Washington Post does that and Marty Baron the editor, you know his mantra is we're at work, not at war. Which in general like I like because I think the only answer to your question is, do the work, keep doing fantastic enterprise and investigative reporting. Look at, you know The Times yesterday won the Pulitzer for an 18 month investigation of how the Trump's, you know inherited money from their father and evaded probably illegally, you know millions and millions in gift taxes. You know it's a great story.
>> It's, it was a fantastic story but people often, the sort of the scuttle butt about it was that it didn't get read by that many people.
>> They republished it.
>> They republished it which is I think great. I guess and I'm, I say hats off to the Times for doing that work, I think it's also incredibly important and you know, anyway I think it's.
>> What's kind of disturbing is as good as that piece was it involved like three full time investigative reporters and a big team. I mean there are very few news organizations left that, you know will spend the money for that kind of effort. And I'm sure all of you have been reading about the news desert and the loss, you know over 500 local newspapers have gone out of business in the past, you know seven years. And you know it's a terrible loss because in terms of public trust the local paper is actually the most trusted source of news.
>> I think that's partly having been once a local reporter, because the community sees you at work. You're there at the meetings, you're covering, you know whatever is going on and they know you and they know you're not the enemy of the American people. But what I worry about is that corruptions going to really flourish in this country if there's no coverage of what's going on.
>> For sure I mean there are state houses and city councils that go uncovered regularly now.
>> Well so how did.
>> It's like a, it's an urgent problem, I mean.
>> Well how is the new media that you write about doing on covering important issues from, everything from local news to covering the Trump administration, how has BuzzFeed done, how has Vice done? Are they, how do they stack up next to the old media?
>> I don't think either of them have broken any really significant stories on the president or the administration. But, they do do some work of high quality and BuzzFeed was a finalist last year for the International Pulitzer Prize in international news for an investigation they did of, you know mysterious deaths of Russian oligarchs in London and they were able to prove that Putin ordered their murders. And it was, you know garish, garishly presented, you know on the website I think the title of the investigation was From Russia With Blood. And, but you know it's good solid reporting and Vice you know had the good judgment to, you know give one of its reporters the assignment of getting really up to speed on white nationalists groups. And so she had planned to be in Charlottesville like weeks before and had arranged to meet up with some of, you know the hanis [assumed spelling] leaders of, you know the march where, you know they were chanting Jews will not replace us. And they did a great like half hour show where they just, they don't believe, [inaudible] like on 60 minutes, you know they think their 60 minutes of the streets and they don't believe in any voice of God correspondents or anchors and they really just let the camera roll, it's a very powerful piece. So they do some like good work but what supports them is not, you know journalism and news is a loss leader for them. And you know what supports them is, you know listicles and quizzes or you know pets for BuzzFeed definitely, you know adorable kittens wearing glasses. And you know both of them do this kind of advertising that I hate because I think it confuses readers called native ads. And you know while, you know BuzzFeed does these photo chains of adorable cats, they do these video ads and similar ads about, for Purina about guess what? Adorable kittens who are eating Friskies. And you know it, they have different standards. You know an incident in Vice, the Vice chapters, I have three chapters on each of the companies. Where you know I've found that, you know one of the founders was doing a piece in Pakistan where, you know his first series on terrorism and like a junior producer found the parents of someone who joined, their son joined the Jihad and was killed. And like a very young assistant producer did the actual interview with them in Pakistan. And then the Vice flew the important founder to the same location where the actual interviewed had happened and you know they did something reverse questioning, which the networks have banned for a long time where you read, you re-ask the questions but you're talking to nobody. And so it's, it's different and the money making is, you know just more the fluffy stuff or for Vice, you know the bro stuff about skateboarders or.
>> And worse.
>> And worse I have like a popular food show called f blank, blank, blank that's delicious. That is kind of gross, vaguely amusing. But you know their audiences is much younger, I mean the Post and the Times have aging audiences. You know less true as they, you know go digital and you know make sure their, you know websites and apps have the best technology and you know cover a, I mean the Post app, one of their apps called the Post Most, you know has the same kind of click beta on it as BuzzFeed.
>> I miss the days when you didn't know how many readers were reading your story because you could then write really boring but important things and never know how many people you'd put to sleep.
>>> So, but I.
>> That's true.
>> But Jill, you know one of the things.
>> So in a way like now at the Times everyone has access to the data, who's reading what at every second. And you know it does influence, like what stories get the best play and the stories that are getting the most clicks rise, you know on the homepage.
>> And one of the things that drives clicks more than anything else is the name Trump.
>> So we're in this kind of cycle where you've just, you know vicious circle thing.
>> A friend of mine from the Times who I had lunch with several months ago said, he's very conscious that he writes a column and a news column weekly. That when he isn't writing about Trump and Trump isn't in the headline, his readership goes down and he feels like a big loser. Even if he is written about something he feels is important, there are these, this implicit rewards system for Trump.
>> Well I suppose it raises the question of, once Trump, the Trump bump is gone.
>> What happens?
>> What's going to happen, I mean how sanguine are you about the survival of the Times and Post in?
>> I'm pretty sanguine about both of them right now. But, I don't know if you ask me ten or 15 years out I just, I don't know, I think it's changing landscape. What I do know is that the work itself is urgent and couldn't be more important because, you know the First Amendment is first for a reason. And you know the founders, you know gave special protections to the press because they wanted us to inform people and to hold power accountable. And you know that's ever more important now. And you know that sounds very highfalutin and you know mostly this book is filled with just great stories and you know characters that amazed me.
>> It truly is.
>> And surprised me, it's a juicy book.
>> It is a juicy book and both about the Times and the characters we know and then some of the stories about places like Vice and the characters there, make me understand better why maybe when your book came out, there was kind of, we all know that the press is very thin skinned and they took great umbrage and came right back roaring after you and even accused you of plagiarism. You know how, how much do you think that was a result of the tough courage you gave them and how much did it affect the sort of the roll out of your book and distract from what's in it? And what did, what were you able to do about it?
>> Well, yeah Vice at the point my book was published at the beginning of February, was fighting for its life. As is BuzzFeed because Facebook and Google are gobbling up all the digital advertising and they both have only advertising to sustain them. And Shane Smith who was a swaggering head founder of Vice and head of Vice, you know was out of the job as CEO and they of course they were embroiled in some very bad metoo sexual misconduct cases which they settled for big money. And so of course they hired a woman to be the new CEO and she was just settling in and hated, you know the fact that the Vice chapters like went over their early history where, you know basically Vice subsisted on sex, drugs and rock and roll. And you know hadn't changed entirely. And like they went nuts about those parts of the book. And used Twitter, you know in a very canny way. First claiming that their, yeah this was right before publication date. You know first claiming that there were mistakes in the book. All of which were in the uncorrected galley that I had corrected on my own, so the book doesn't have these mistakes. And then, you know this one reporter there this is his stock and trade, is using plagiarism apps and trying to find, you know examples of what he calls plagiarism. You know my case, there are 834 source notes citations and he found six passages that are not, you know making big points or stealing anyone's ideas where I didn't footnote properly. And in two cases missed footnoting and they were all from one early section about Vice, I mean [inaudible] and you know said I was sorry and many interviews, cause I don't want any imperfection in my work. But, you know this was, was not plagiarism. But you know was too delicious a story for anybody to pass up that Jill Abramson the former executive editor of the Times at almost 65 had suddenly decided to become a plagiarist. Too good to be true, but too good not to publish.
>> Well it certainly seems that.
>> But I was told like three weeks before the book was published, that Vice was mounting an oppo campaign against me and the book. And I actually hired a woman to help me add and how to respond to whatever this was going to be, who had worked for us on Strange Justice when Jane and I were savagely attacked by the right.
>> Right, the Clarence Thomas forces. But the world of fighting back has changed a lot in trying to clear your name and show that you're accurate and fair, it's hard with the Twitter mob. They come right at you from so many directions at once.
>> Yeah but the thing was, was, you know kind of educational about it for me is it proved some of the points I made in the book about how information takes off and becomes a hurricane so quickly. But, you know maybe after four or five days of me as plagiarist trending on Twitter, Jeff Bezos's affair and the news, I have never been more grateful to a business leader than when that story suddenly, you know it blows up and then it's gone, it's very weird.
>> So, we were joking at one point, Jill and I went out for a drink and decided the world has changed from the Andy Warhol model that everyone will have 15 minutes of fame to it's now we will all have 15 minutes of shame.
>> But, anyway, I, you know I hope that some of you have written questions, we're going to take questions from the audience. I've got one question about the, some work, you know the work you've done in the past that bares on, potentially on the 2020 presidential election. Which is after the work we did together about Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill and Joe Biden's performance as the chairman of the judiciary committee in the senate, that had held those hearings. And after then you went back at this subject recently for New York Magazine.
>> Yeah I did.
>> You know what would you tell people about what you learned about Biden from that and anything, is there anything that is relevant that people should know? Do you think?
>> Yes. We were, you know harsh in our judgment of Biden's performance in 1991 during the Thomas Hill hearings and justifiably so. And for, when the Kavanaugh hearings were happening, it was really just after Kavanaugh was nominated. You know I was assigned by New York Magazine to go back over basically the whole history of this including look at Biden, including looking for any other episodes since Justice Thomas has been on the court and indeed there was one and in fact Jane came with me and we got on the porch and knocked on the door of a woman who knew about, knew things about Clarence Thomas's behavior. And you know there was a woman who he had kind of groped at a dinner after he was a Justice so, anyway there was lots to go over and report. But, what shocked me and we had a lot of this in Strange Justice, was Biden was just so outmaneuvered by the republicans on the judiciary committee. And remember back then the democrats were in control of the senate. And Biden was chairman of the judiciary committee. But he like bowed to the republicans and agreed to terms that basically made it impossible for Anita Hill to prove her case.
>> Well that does seem significant if he's going to be running for president or potentially a president, if he can be so easily outmaneuvered.
>> I mean even I have had a lot of conversations about politics, about the democrats always want, are hung up on they want to be perceived as being fair. The republicans just want to win and you know Biden fell prey to that imbalance of interest.
>> Well I was interested.
>> And whenever I see him he makes like a dirty face at me.
>> Oh he does?
>> Because I did the interview with him for our book.
>> He doesn't come over and rub noses with you?
>> He's not, he's not kissing the back of my hair.
>> So okay, let's see here are some questions. If you were both writing a book together on the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, what would be the books main premise in terms of how far we've come or not since the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings? Jill?
>> I wrote, I write for the Guardian about politics and you know wrote a lot of columns once Kavanaugh was nominated and then even more once he was accused by a credible accuser of, you know very bad sexual misconduct even though he was young when this happened. But, what fascinated me as, you know the judiciary committee now controlled by republicans they didn't want to hold a hearing, they didn't want to have an FBI investigation. But you know public opinion people were outraged so they said, you know we'll have an FBI investigation, it wasn't a thorough one and we'll hold hearings. But, they only had two witnesses, Kavanaugh and his female accuser. And it seemed to me and I wrote this before the vote was taken, a forgone conclusion that was such an incomplete hearing no corroborators of course Kavanaugh was going to be confirmed. And all the evidence wasn't going to be heard. So I don't think we've come that far, we now have two, you know two justices accused of sexual misconduct sitting on the court.
>> And accused of lying under oath to get confirmed, which is even, you know sort of more appalling in a way because if they either of them had come forward and said, well I misbehaved, I feel terrible about it, it was a long time ago and I've learned, I think the outcome might have been, you know at least many people would've been more sympathetic but.
>> I don't know.
>> You don't think so?
>> I mean I'm thinking of like a great scene in Strange Justice where Anita Hill's statement is being faxed page by page to the judiciary committee so, there are two staffers, a republican staffer and a democratic staffer. One worked for Biden, one worked from Strom Thurmond and they haven't read the statement, but they're just collecting the pages and the Biden aide turned to the Thurman aid and said, what do you, what do you think Justice Thomas's reaction is going to be to this? And without missing a beat, the female aid to Thurmond just said, categorical denial. So I'm not sure, I'm not sure that even as credible as Christine Blasey Ford was whether like admitting some kind of wrongdoing, I think his goose would've been cooked.
>> You do?
>> I do.
>> Well certainly his advisers felt that and we saw him, it's just so much like the movie Groundhog Day, I mean to see him come roaring back in just as Clarence Thomas had with his, you know dander.
>> Outraged, yeah. And again, it was the same, I have so much the same feeling Jill did that if, you know the hearings only looked like they were looking for, a process that was trying to get at the truth. They really were not, neither was the FBI, I was in the middle of reporting on it and I kept talking to people who had important information to give that the FBI was not even calling back. They were calling the FBI themselves to try to get their information across and were not being called back. It was sort of a, you know foe process really. And there were, the other women who again, which is the same thing that happened to Anita Hill, there were other women who had pertinent information and if they had testified you would've seen a pattern of behavior. And that's what the public never got to see. And I think would've changed.
>> It would've changed the field.
>> Yeah as it might have in the case of Anita Hill.
>> It might have changed public opinion though I have to say I asked, I was up at Wellsley doing a speech recently and was talking to an American History professor there and I asked her if she thought if the other women who didn't get the chance to testify against Kavanaugh had had the chance, if he, it would've made a difference? And she said no I don't really think so because I think it wasn't about the truth and people already knew he wasn't telling the truth, so it wouldn't matter how many other women came in to say the same thing.
>> That's depressing.
>> It was very, for a reporter that is really the end. When you feel, cause you work so hard to get the truth and get the facts out there and you think that it really will matter. And basically I do think it matters but, it's, it's more of a fight than ever these days. So here's another question. In a world of push notifications, tweets and sound bytes, where do you see opportunities for raising the level of discourse, challenging each other with differing opinions, all while maintaining civility and respect?
>> Civility and respect are endangered species right. I mean all you have to do is watch, you know the panels on cable. Where, you know cable news feeds off of conflict. And that doesn't have, hold much promise for civility or you know a good, good level of discourse. And it's fed by Facebook because like people are no longer being exposed to information that doesn't conform with what they already believe. And that's, so it's a difference in our country.
>> Well I'm, I am now seeing a sign that says conclude imminently or something like that so. I think it's the polite version of getting.
>> Getting the hook.
>> So I guess that unfortunately we're not going to be able to get to all the rest of these questions though they're some good ones in here, I'll give you one last one which is very much about the Times and it doesn't have to take a lot of time but. How do you feel about the Times getting rid of the public editor?
>> I was oddly not, the public editor began after the Jason Blair scandal in 2003. the Washington Post had long had an ombudsman, the Times never did and no executive editors wanted to have someone looking over their shoulders to critique the paper. But, the published insisted on it in 2003 and Dan Okrent was the first public editor and he was great. You know it's sort of depended of the quality of the person doing it. And you know the last public editor was not someone who got much admiring notices. And she had been quite critical of the Times and Dean Baquet, the now executive editor for being too timid on a particular story that was, you know critical of Trump and could've been published before the election and wasn't and it made him very angry. And soon she was gone and the position was abolished. I thought Margaret Sullivan was great and that she served, you know really good purpose of ventilating really interesting just issues in journalism you know and she was not, she didn't have like the scold tone. But, I was on balance sorry to see them abandon that. Because yeah they have this reader forum but, you know where can you ventilate now, I mean the Times has come under quite a bit of criticism for, you know the so called collusion delusion, you know that they had too many stories saying that Trump associates and campaign workers were sort of conspiring directly with weird Russians. And yeah that would be an interesting thing, you know controversial for sure. For a public editor to sort of interview people at the Times about and write about but, I haven't seen that.
>> I suppose in this case we can end on a note of a different counterpoint because I was kind of glad to see the public editors go cause I feel the whole world is so critical.
>> It's criticizing.
>> At this point and when it started you didn't have the internet and Twitter and everything else coming at you, now as you write you just feel the critics breathing down your neck before you even finish a first sentence.
>> Shame, neither patience or fortitude is staring at us.
>> Time to go. Thank you all for being a wonderful audience.
>> That was Jane Mayer talking with Jill Abramson about Abramson's new book, Merchants of Truth, The Business of News and the Fight For Facts. If you live in New York and you have a New York Public Library card you can check the book out at one of our many branches. Or you can get it on our app SimplyE. Library Talks is produced by Schuyler Swenson with editorial support from Richert Schnorr and myself. And our theme music was composed by Allison Layton-Brown.