Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now
By Alan Rusbridger. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 464 pp, hardcover.
I used to think that the best book about the evolution of the media was The Powers That Be, by David Halberstam.
Published in 1979, it was a sweeping yet detailed examination of the influence of the owners of the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, CBS, and the Time-Life empire on 20th-century American history.
Then I read Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now, by Alan Rusbridger.
And I was gobsmacked.
Rusbridger was editor-in-chief of the Guardian during a tumultuous time in the media's history from 1995 to 2015.
Not only did the Internet gain public acceptance, but this period also saw the emergence of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other hugely disruptive platforms.
Breaking News is ostensibly a book about the Guardian's evolution from a somewhat influential progressive British broadsheet owned by the Scott Charitable Trust into a global Internet powerhouse with a knack for breaking the most important stories in the world.
In that vein, there are riveting tales about how reporter Nick Davies revealed that a Rupert Murdoch–owned tabloid had hacked into the phones of Britain's most famous people.
As well, Rusbridger offers an insider's view of what it was like dealing with ornery WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's disclosures about U.S. military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are also colourful and revealing reminiscences in Breaking News about the Guardian's role in telling the world about the extent of U.S. electronic surveillance, courtesy of whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Any one of these three blockbusters could have finished off the Guardian had Rusbridger been a more careless editor, given the hostility from the British establishment.
Rusbridger faced difficult ethical challenges
In addition, there are insightful sections about libel suits he had to fend off. He writes about the curiously corresponding journalistic decline and financial rise of the Telegraph. And he dishes some details about backbiting from rival editors, particularly those employed by Murdoch, who resented the Guardian's hard-hitting coverage of the media.
Then there were the challenges of keeping the Guardian and its sister paper, the Observer, afloat as advertising revenues collapsed following the global economic meltdown in 2008.
But Breaking News is so much more than a collection of war stories by an editor who's done his time and moved on to more leisurely pursuits.
Rusbridger also addresses ethical challenges that have arisen with the rise of the surveillance state. How does an editor juggle national security with the public's right to know about unethical activity by the state that imperils democracy? All of this is written in a punchy, journalistic style that makes for easy reading, notwithstanding the scope of the book.
The former Guardian editor delves deeply into the fundamental question facing many media companies: is it wise to put up paywalls that limit information to those who can afford it, leaving mediocre offerings for the masses?
It's obvious why many newspapers and broadcasters prefer to put their content behind so-called walled gardens: it helps to pay the bills in an era when print advertising is in decline and corporations are putting their faith in giant digital platforms.
"Google and Facebook were expected to together control 63 per cent of all digital-ad spending in the US in 2017, according to eMarketer," Rusbridger writes. "By December 2017 Rupert Murdoch estimated that 85 to 90 per cent of incremental digital-advertising expenditures was going to the West Coast duopoly. (The big platform players disputed those figures.)"
But Rusbridger points out that this comes at a cost to democracy when only the privileged have access to the best information.
Open journalism promotes democratic discourse
Rusbridger has always been inclined toward what he calls "open journalism", encouraging far more people to contribute and have access to the Guardian website.
He gave a platform to more radical commentators, such as Glenn Greenwald and George Monbiot, who went far further than other journalists in their coverage of national security and climate change, respectively.
Then he did something that no other mainstream-media editor did before.
In his final year as editor-in-chief, Rusbridger decided that the Guardian should actively and vociferously campaign for institutional investors to divest from fossil fuels, zeroing in on large charities run by the Wellcome Trust and billionaire Bill Gates.
In doing this, Rusbridger was encouraged by Monbiot and 350.org cofounder Bill McKibben.
"The attraction of the campaign was that it enabled readers to be more than passive and fatalistic recipients of disturbing information over which they had no control—one reason, research had shown, why people didn't like reading about climate change," Rusbridger writes. "We told them how to divest their own pensions; how to lobby their schools, workplaces, unions or faith groups. We invited them to write to the boards of Wellcome and Gates—and they did."
Even the Prince of Wales endorsed the campaign and, according to Rusbridger, "a trickle of divestment became a stream".
"I still believed that such overt campaigning should have a limited role in news media," Rusbridger emphasizes in his book. "But, if you were going to make an exception, the long-term survival of the species was as good as any issue."
It's a remarkable book written by one of the most thoughtful journalists of our time. And it just might be the perfect antidote for anyone who despairs about the ability of journalists to stand for truth and justice in a time when authoritarian leaders are gaining ground.