One of the last great newspaper rivalries got a boost on Monday with the debut of Margaret Sullivan’s media column in the Washington Post. Sullivan’s first piece was more a preview of coming attractions than an attempt to dig deep. But with Jim Rutenberg having replaced the late, great David Carr at the New York Times earlier this year, our two leading general-interest newspapers now have dueling media critics for the first time in ages.
Sullivan, a former editor of the Buffalo News, joins a team of experienced media observers at the Post, including reporter Paul Farhi and blogger Erik Wemple. She is the Post’s first media columnist since Howard Kurtz, who left in 2010 for the Daily Beast. (Kurtz was also the host of CNN’s Reliable Sources. He moved to Fox News in 2013 following some well-publicized problems at both the Beast and CNN.)
The Post’s hiring of Sullivan shows just how small the world of elite media can be, given that she was recruited while serving as the Times’s public editor, as the paper calls its ombudsman. Sullivan was the fifth and, to my eyes, the best. As Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post put it, Sullivan “radically updated the role for the digital age by quickly addressing Times-related controversies and debates in real time and actively engaging on social media.” Sullivan will be replaced by Elizabeth Spayd, currently the editor-in-chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review and previously (yes, you guessed it) an editor at the Washington Post.
Needless to say, it will be interesting to see whether and how Sullivan chooses to write about the Times. In a recent interview with public radio’s On the Media, she praised her former employer—but also expressed frustration over an institutional attitude of “when the Times decides to cover it, then it becomes news” as well as bemusement over its oft-mocked trend stories. Indeed, Sullivan started something she called the “Monocle Meter” after the Times ran a story about the supposed resurgence of monocles in Brooklyn—a resurgence that apparently came and went without anyone actually ever having been spotted wearing a monocle.
Rutenberg, a veteran political reporter, got into a spat recently when he wrote that not only did journalists in general miss the rise of Donald Trump, but so did data journalists like Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, whose empirically based methodology should in theory produce more accurate results. In a two-fer of Times-Post incestuousness, Rutenberg invoked an observation by the Post’s Farhi that “nothing exceeds the value of shoe-leather reporting” in criticizing Silver, who moved his site from the Times to ESPN after the 2012 presidential election.
Silver, never one to suffer in silence, ripped into Rutenberg on a FiveThirtyEight podcast. As Bill Wyman wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review, Silver called Rutenberg’s column “dishonest” and “unethical,” and rehashed some old grievances over the way he was treated at the Times by Rutenberg and others, saying they were “incredibly hostile and incredibly unhelpful.” Silver later subtweeted Rutenberg with a lengthy article in which he argued that he got Trump wrong not because of an overreliance on data but because his predictions that Trump would fade weren’t based on any data at all. “In other words,” Silver wrote, “we were basically acting like pundits."
The rivalry between the Times and the Post has a long, colorful history As recounted in Chalmers Roberts’s 1977 book The Washington Post: The First 100 Years, when the Times published a condescending item in 1900 about longing for “the rudeness of New York” after spending some time in “amiable and inefficient Washington,” the Post replied: “No doubt. The pig returns to his wallow.”
After years of striving, the Post emerged on an equal footing with the Times over the constitutional crisis sparked by the publication of the Pentagon Papers. The Post captured the public’s imagination in a way the Times never had during and after the Watergate scandal. How could the Gray Lady possibly compete with a newspaper whose journalists were portrayed by movie stars like Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, and Jason Robards?
But the technological and cultural forces that have brought the newspaper business to its knees did considerably more damage to the Post than to the Times—that is, until Amazon’s Jeff Bezos bought the Post in 2013 and added about 100 journalists to its newsroom in a bid to transform the Post into a national digital newspaper.
Now, once again, the Post and the Times are genuine rivals. The Post’s executive editor, Marty Baron, and the Times’s, Dean Baquet, are longtime friends and competitors. Bezos said in a television interview that his goal was for the Post to become “the new paper of record,” a clear reference to the Times—and the Post took it a step further than even Bezos had by putting together an ad proclaiming itself already to be “America’s New Publication of Record.” The Post also moved ahead of the Times in online readership, despite having a newsroom staff about half the size.
It is into this ancient conflict—once heated, then dormant, and now heating up again—that Margaret Sullivan and Jim Rutenberg have now been enlisted. This is going to be fun.