The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A veteran newspaper editor grapples with a seemingly simple question: What is journalism?

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How did a small British newspaper with origins in Manchester take on Rupert Murdoch’s empire, partner with WikiLeaks to release government secrets and antagonize the U.S. national security establishment? The answer has a lot to do with the ambition of Alan Rusbridger, the former editor in chief of the Guardian, who oversaw those stories during his 20-year tenure leading the paper.

The accomplished pianist’s last book chronicled his effort to master Chopin’s First Ballade as an adult. He had given up piano as a teenager and suggested, in the subtitle of that book, “Play It Again,” that amateurs should attempt the impossible. (He has also written several children’s books and a history of sex manuals.)

His latest book, “Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now,” could also have a subtitle about overcoming incredible odds. Much of what Rusbridger took on at the Guardian was beyond the paper’s own traditional aspirations. It left him open to attack both by his British competitors and the U.S. and British governments.

Libel laws in Britain carry much weaker protections for publishers than in the United States. As a result, Rusbridger found himself partnering with U.S. news organizations, from the New York Times to ProPublica, to carry out some of the paper’s most ambitious reporting.

The sphinx-like Rusbridger looks an awful lot like an aging version of the fictional wizard Harry Potter. But his concerns about the future of truth and journalism are very real. He veers between optimism and cataclysm when writing about these topics, which he weaves together using his own personal history.

During a recent trip to New York, he discussed his feelings about social media, Julian Assange and how Donald Trump got elected. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: One reviewer pointed out that this was a 442-page book with 554 question marks. Is there anything you found as you wrote the book that is a definitive answer?

A: Overall, I think we’re about five minutes into a gigantic experiment that’s going to last a few hundred years. If we want readers to trust us and believe we have the answers, and say “we miss you now that you are almost gone,” I think we need to do more to make people believe that we are the answer. Most measures of trust still show abysmal levels of trust in journalism. Why? Why is there this almost hatred for people who are doing this work? Why are people willing to believe that journalists are the enemy of the people? I think there’s something to the power people feel in being able to talk to one another on social media instead of receiving tablets of stone that we have handed down.

Q: Why did you feel the need to write the book?

A: Well, I have a sense that we’re staring over a precipice, that we’ve realized that society doesn’t really work if you can’t agree on the difference between a fact and a non-fact. You can’t have debates or laws or courts or governance or science, and the more that becomes apparent the more scared people will get and the more they will think about why they should care. I’ve been writing the book about very fundamental questions. My most basic one is, “What is journalism?” Because we’ve got a public that I think is very confused about journalism. They wonder whether they can trust you at all.

Q: What's your definition?

A: I think we need more rigor in how we think about it. We talk about journalism, and journalism is Fox News and journalism is the New York Times and journalism is the Daily Mail and the BBC. All of those places have completely different ideas of what journalism should be and that’s confusing for the public. And then you have journalists who are themselves confused about what our role is.

Q: You've competed against Rupert Murdoch's publications all of your career. Does that experience give you any kind of special insight into this moment in the United States, where so many of us are focused on Fox News and Donald Trump's relationship with that outlet?

A: Within Rupert Murdoch’s company you have a perfect illustration about what journalism is and what it does. In the U.K. you have the Times, which is a good newspaper. The same company runs Fox News, which has editorial standards no better than Facebook’s and arguably much worse. So even within that one company it’s a company that can’t decide what journalism is or should be doing.

Q: You defend social media at a time when many people are very much disillusioned with it. Why?

A: If Thomas Piketty writes a book saying neoliberalism isn’t working, or an academic writes a book saying we need more equal societies and we can’t have this gross inequality, they get prizes and are invited to speak in front of large audiences, but if millions of people say the same thing somewhat incoherently, we write them off as morons and they’re the mob. If people are saying this is not working for me, they might come to the wrong answers. They might come to Donald Trump, or they might say let’s leave the European Union and that will make life better.

Q: You recently tweeted a piece written by James Goodale, the former New York Times lawyer who represented the paper during the Pentagon Papers. In it, he said journalists, whatever they think of Julian Assange, should defend his First Amendment rights. How do you feel about your role in publishing the WikiLeaks cables back in 2010?

A: I’ve always said with Assange, if he were ever in court as a result of what we published online, I’m with him, because I am happy to defend what we did. And even if I tweeted that piece, I wasn’t sure I agreed with the entire sentiment completely, because if it turns out Assange is the way that Russian intelligence published stolen material to try to win an election, that does not qualify for First Amendment rights in my view.

Q: You also published documents that NSA contractor Edward Snowden provided to Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. What are the similarities between Assange and Snowden?

A: Snowden is completely different. Snowden had material and handed it to journalists. And he left it up to the journalists to make a judgment. The fact that he is in Moscow today is not his choosing. And I’ve never seen anyone serious suggest that he has any connection with the Russian state.

Q: You wrote the book as the Brexit campaign was unfolding, and so was the election of Trump. What did that tell you about the role of the media in politics?

A: If you’ve had a media that is increasingly dealing in simple messages and glaring headlines, then you get simple politics. Simplified media leads to simplified politics.

Q: Has anything changed about the way you see media now that you are no longer working in it?

A: I find that as a civilian I consume media very differently. I went out to dinner with two editors recently and they were both constantly checking their phones for the latest small bit of news. I’ve learned what it feels like to relax.

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