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I Read the News Today, Oh Boy

Ken Auletta's Backstory

Jayson Blair fabricates stories for America's largest daily paper. Fox News sues Al Franken over his satirical, book-length blast at the right-wing media. American reporters ride into war alongside troops in Iraq. It seems recently the media is the news as much as it reports the news. This includes big media business, now just as much part of the multinational corporate landscape as defense, high-tech and automobile companies. For a plugged-in citizen trying to disentangle these media alliances, biases and motives while struggling for a comprehensive view of the world, Ken Auletta's Backstory: Inside the Business of News is required reading.

Backstory collects ten years of articles, mostly from the New Yorker, penned between 1993 and 2003. Each article is followed by a postscripted update and transition to the following article, lending Backstory a nice cohesion often lacking in anthologies. The book's glue comes from Auletta's critical examination of the increasingly incestuous relationship between the business and editorial sides of the media, a theme that runs throughout the essays.

Given that the New York Times was rocked by the biggest media scandal of 2003, it's fitting that Backstory opens with a profile of the newspaper's recently resigned executive editor. From the first page, Auletta shows off his incisive pen: "A man who takes the subway wearing the white panama hat of a plantation owner is either blithely arrogant or irrepressibly self-confident, and in the nine months that Howell Raines has been the executive editor of the Times both qualities have been imputed to him."

Raines was named executive editor of the Times only a week before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and he rallied the paper in dramatic fashion, dominating coverage of Ground Zero and picking up an unprecedented seven Pulitzers in 2002. But Raines' aggressive leadership style sowed discontent and he was forced to resign when the Blair scandal rattled the Times to its core.

Auletta then turns to the profit-hungry Chicago Tribune, which has made synergy into a fetish. Often this synergy raises profits, but it may also undermine journalistic independence; as of 1998 the Tribune Company owned four newspapers, sixteen TV affiliates, a 24-hour Chicago-area cable news channel, parts of the WB network and America Online, and all of the Chicago Cubs. It's a premier case study of conflict of interest, and, sadly, how profits grow increasingly more important than journalistic ethics. Tribune media outlets regularly share "content," reporters do double duty (a Tribune reporter might appear as a media specialist on the Tribune-owned cable news channel) and some say that advertisers have undue influence over reporters' stories. However, the Tribune's double digit profit margins have caused rubbernecking throughout the industry; increasingly publishers overlook the Tribune's journalistic improprieties as they try to emulate its bottom line.

Auletta laments the destruction of barriers that separate news and business as ever-larger corporations swallow all manner of media outlets: "The corporate buzzword synergy is rarely journalism's friend. The business assumptions that animate synergy -- cost savings, 'team culture,' 'leverage' of size -- are often a menace to journalism."

In the essay "Fee Speech," Auletta waves a red flag over celebrity journalists such as Sam Donaldson and George Will who are paid handsomely for speaking engagements. These jet-set journalists have no problem attacking lawmakers for improper relationships and payoffs but bristle at the suggestion that their own weekend occupations are anything but proper.

Finally, Auletta's wades into the ideological morass that set the stage for the Fox News-Al Franken mud-wrestling match. In his profile of Fox News manager Roger Ailes, Auletta dings the network for its rise to prominence on a wave of rightward slanted attacks and adolescent shout-fests that fall short of journalistic standards. He gives Fox credit for solid work while embedded during the Iraq war but ends the piece on a sour note: "My four-month immersion in Fox News left me dismissive of its claims of 'fair and balanced.'"

That piece may get Backstory branded as just more liberal propaganda, which would be unfortunate because the book is an honest, provocative look at where journalism is and where its headed. Auletta is right to fret about the future of an industry harshly derided for turning news into entertainment.

His analysis would be more thorough if he had written about America's alternative media and those who turn to it as they shun the mainstream. That omission, and the tendency to bog down in journalistic shop-talk (such as a painfully detailed description of the politicking among minor newsroom personalities) are the book's only negatives. The main message comes shining through: the media is flooded with improper relationships, and the answer is to restore and preserve journalistic checks and balances. Auletta's book is part of that answer.

by Ken Auletta
The Penguin Press; ISBN: 1594200009
Hardcover: 296 pages (December 2003)