Margaret Sullivan, one of the foremost chroniclers of the media, made headlines of her own on Wednesday after it was announced that she’d be leaving The Washington Post at the end of this month. “Call it a self-imposed term limit!” Sullivan told me over email Wednesday, shortly after the news broke that she’d be retiring her must-read media column after six and a half years. Sullivan has provided incisive analysis and criticism of the industry—and consistently sounded the alarm on the decline of local news—over the course of roughly 500 columns, which, to her, was enough. “I do feel that the media column had run its course,” she said.
Sullivan, a former chief editor of The Buffalo News, came to the Post after a widely respected, four-year tenure as the public editor of The New York Times (which entirely eliminated the in-house critic role less than a year after Sullivan’s successor took over). How does she feel she’s impacted the industry in her decade writing on it? “I’m not sure it’s possible to make much of an impact. I’ve tried to choose column topics, both at the Post and the Times, that not only interest me but have sort of public-interest value. At its best, journalism is crucial to the way our democracy and our society function—not only in its watchdog role but in fairly and accurately digging out and chronicling what’s going on, especially in government coverage,” Sullivan said. “So I have pointed out the all-too-ingrained practices that obstruct that common good: the horse race politics coverage; the way we too often treat unequal things as if they were equal, often from a defensive position; the too-frequent anonymity given to sources with highly politicized motives.” She added that she’s “tried to celebrate good work when I see it, which is often. ‘Catch them doing something right’ is the idea there.”
Sullivan praised the Post, describing it as “an incredible platform for what I’ve wanted to say.” “I often find myself in awe of the work being produced there,” she added. “It’s not perfect, of course, and sometimes I cringe at the particular framing of a story or the wording of a headline or the errant (at least to me!) viewpoint of an opinion writer. On balance, I’ve been extremely proud to be associated with the paper and its journalists.”
Post editors announced her departure in an internal memo Wednesday, which said that Sullivan will be joining Duke University as the 2023 Pamela and Jack Egan visiting professor. The part-time gig, which begins at the start of next year, “gives me the opportunity to teach, advise students, and do some public speaking,” Sullivan said. The change isn’t totally out of left field: Sullivan has previously taught at Duke, as an adjunct instructor in its DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy, as well as at Columbia University and City University of New York. “I’ve been teaching part-time for many years, off and on, and I enjoy the interaction with students,” she said.
Sullivan’s forthcoming book, Newsroom Confidential, likely won’t be her last. “I’ve begun talking with a friend, a prominent journalist, about possibly cowriting a book about public libraries and their influence in broadening young people’s horizons,” she said, noting that, “like so many public-serving institutions, libraries are under siege now in the relentless culture wars, so that could be timely.” (Her most recent column was on the surge of book bans.) Sullivan, who said her “secret vice” is “police procedural or detective/thriller stuff,” is also dabbling in fiction: She’s started writing a series “featuring a laid-off local journalist who turns her investigative skills to solving crimes.”
Over the years, Sullivan has turned her critical gaze on powerful figures across media and politics, from Jeff Zucker, Rupert Murdoch, Tucker Carlson, and Chris Matthews to Mike Bloomberg, Barack Obama, Elon Musk, and Steve Bannon. The end of Sullivan’s column comes at a critical moment for the mainstream media, or “the reality-based press,” as Sullivan has dubbed it. Given how she’s written extensively on covering threats to democracy, I wondered if she was hopeful about how the media is meeting this moment: “I’m encouraged one day, despairing the next.”
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