It’s a cliché in journalism to find people who say they always knew what they wanted to be. Margaret Sullivan doesn’t exactly say that, but she admits that she only remembers having one serious idea of what she wanted to be. Coming of age during the Watergate hearings, she remembers watching them on TV with her parents and being inspired by the work of Woodward and Bernstein. It’s fitting, then, that all these years later, she’s true to her ideals of being a journalist — and at the same outlet as journalism’s most famous investigative duo.
Growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., she was editor of her high school newspaper. After college at Georgetown, she returned to her hometown to intern at the Buffalo News, and eventually held most available jobs in the newsroom, from reporter to metro columnist to assistant city editor to editor-in-chief. In 2012, The New York Times named her public editor (i.e. ombudsman). Sullivan left the Times shortly before her four-year stint expired and landed in Washington, D.C., as the Washington Post’s media columnist and critic. It’s all proven true the prediction of her brother, who as a college student came home to his high school sister and told her the career for her was, without doubt, “journalist.”
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
How have you transitioned from leading a newsroom in Buffalo to critiquing a newsroom at the Times to examining and critiquing the news media writ large? That seems like three very distinct job functions that might be hard to reconcile.
It hasn’t been hard. In both of those changes, the new job has flowed out of and built on what I was doing before. When I started at the Times, I was prepared because I had done all of the jobs at the Buffalo News. I had sort of a bigger view of the journalism world, being on the Pulitzer board and a director of the American Society of News Editors. It seemed like a logical and good fit.
People said to me it seemed like I was born to do that job. It was tough, it’s a highly uncomfortable job, there’s a lot of tension built in. But I did feel like I was well prepared for it. It was helpful to have an outsider’s point of view (not being from the New York City news media). When I was in that public editor’s job for about three years, I started to feel like less of an outsider. It got to be more difficult to feel truly independent.
How about some word association?
Objectivity: I like the idea of impartiality and independence more.
Fairness: Possibly the most important thing we have as journalists.
WikiLeaks: Mixed feelings. It’s a complicated subject.
How do you view these sometimes competing or hard-to-balance ideas of ethics, like seek truth and report it versus minimize harm?
You do have to place truth at the highest level. The idea of minimizing harm is a good way to look at it. You may not be able to ever eliminate it. You must minimize it and be still faithful to the truth.
You’re at the Post, which has its recognized history of journalism watchdog excellence, particularly with Watergate. Do you think it’s harder to have an “All the President’s Men” moment now, in this time, with so much news media competition and a fractured landscape?
I immediately think of something like the NSA stories both at the Guardian and The Washington Post or The New York Times doing stories on China’s ruling family. Or the “Spotlight” movie and The Boston Globe. I think that the best news organizations are still able to distinguish themselves by doing out-of-the-ordinary investigative work. So I don’t really agree with the premise.
I don’t know how many times a week I cringe and try to correct people who resort to blaming “THE MEDIA” for whatever their issue or complaint is. Do you try to correct people in your own personal circles and explain the differences and nuances in “media” and “the press”?
I sometimes will go down that road. And what I do and what I say if I do is that “the media” is an almost meaningless term. Are you talking about The Washington Post or Breitbart or CNN or National Enquirer? I do think there is an entity that we can call “the press,” and by that I don’t just mean newspapers. I mean that kind of journalism that grows out of a respectful legacy. I would put BuzzFeed and ProPublica in that category. They’re doing the kind of work that can legitimately be referred to as the press. “The media” is a broader and amorphous term. It’s an almost meaningless term. When I think of the press, I think of the things that are noble. I don’t know for my kids, who are in their 20s, if it would mean anything to them.[Correction: The term “amorphous” was originally written as “amorous” in Sullivan’s response to “the media” being an almost meaningless term. Indeed, there are many ways of describing “the media,” but referring to it as “showing feeling or relating to sexual desire” is not one. Quill regrets the error, passionately.]
In the weeks and months after the election, doing the navel-gazing thing, this explanation became popular of “journalists took Donald Trump literally but not seriously, and his supporters took him seriously but not literally.” One, do you think that’s accurate generally, and two, does it still hold up?
I was taken by that notion when I first heard it, and quoted it in a column. But honestly, now that President Trump is in office, I think a lot of what he was talking about did need to be taken literally. I think that concept seemed attractive and appealing, but I’m not sure how well it’s holding up.
In your area of work you’re hyper-tuned into the news about the news, and it seems like it’s all media all the time. Do you go home and still consume all the insider baseball geekery stuff or try to decompress and detach?
A little of both. I definitely stay pretty connected all day. It’s not unusual to be reading stuff pretty soon after I wake up and pretty close to when I go to sleep. Right now I’m trying to watch all of the Oscar-nominated Best Picture movies. “Moonlight” is the best so far. I’ve always read a lot of fiction. (Right now reading a lot from Irish author Tana French.)
You’re a longtime upstate New York resident, worked for the Times, now in D.C. at the Post. So who are you cheering for on Sundays in football season or for any sport for that matter?
Of course, I have never moved away from being a Buffalo Bills (football) and Sabres (hockey) fan.
It’s no secret that journalists, particularly those in the newspaper field, have had a rough ride in the past few decades, particularly with layoffs and career uncertainty. “Newspaper reporter” of late is consistently ranked as one of the “worst jobs” in these kinds of lists. So who’s more downtrodden, bedraggled and beat up in the past 25 years: newspaper reporters or Buffalo Bills fans?
Having lived through the Jim Kelly years of going to four Super Bowls in a row and losing four in a row, that’s hard.
(Washington Post editor) Marty Baron said recently that your outlet isn’t “at war” with the Trump administration, but at rather “at work,” which is a nice sentiment. How do you view the role of not just the Post but all journalists, particularly those who don’t cover press briefings and daily D.C. news, in this time?
I think we have to remember, whether we’re covering the president or the local school board, that our job comes with a mission attached to it, to do the best possible job for our audiences and the citizens — to stay close to that mission that brought almost all of us into this business and not get dragged into this opposition role. That doesn’t mean we can’t be adversarial; sometimes we have to be. We need to do the job of holding powerful institutions accountable. If you’re a pop music critic, you’re not necessarily going to hold powerful institutions accountable, but you still have a core mission (to serve your audience).
There’s a good case for now being the “best of times and the worst of times” for journalists, or for those wanting to get into journalism. So for the younger people out there considering a journalism line of work, what do you say?
My feeling is just if you’re really committed to it, you absolutely should pursue it and not let anything distract you. It’s a wonderful way to do something worthwhile.
I would say for people who may be uncertain, there are certainly paths that are easier, more lucrative, more secure ways to go through life. But I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.