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Backstory

Inside the Business of News

Ken Auletta - Author

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ISBN 9780143034636 | 320 pages | 28 Dec 2004 | Penguin | 5.55 x 8.46in | 18 - AND UP
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"Auletta['s] acumen and incredible access make this required reading for both purveryors and consumers of 'content.'" —Entertainment Weekly

America’s foremost analyst of media and journalism, New Yorker columnist and national bestselling author Ken Auletta has been called the “James Bond of the media world” (BusinessWeek) for his unparalleled access to news sources, keen analysis, smooth writing style, and uncompromising commitment to his profession. In Backstory, Auletta’s piercing gaze sweeps into every corner of a subject that has generated tremendous noise but precious little clear thinking: the state of today’s media. From Howell Raines and the New York Times to Roger Ailes and Fox News to the fractious relationship between President Bush and the press, the essays in Backstory survey the troubled landscape of the people and institutions who tell Americans what to believe. Comprehensive, trenchant, and unflinchingly honest, Backstory is a book that only Ken Auletta could write.

June 10, 2002—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 is fifty-nine and has worked for the Times for a quarter of a century; he has been praised and derided for the sometimes coruscating editorial page that he ran from January 1993 until August 2001. But until last year his acquaintance with the newsroom was only passing, and to most of his Times colleagues he was an alien—as the metropolitan editor, Jonathan Landman, characterized him, a “Martian.”

Raines is built close to the ground (he is five feet eight), with short, stocky legs that churn rapidly—like those of a “Tasmanian devil,” one female reporter says. He has neatly brushed-back, wavy black hair flecked with gray, a wardrobe of dapper sports jackets and pastel shirts, a courtly manner, an engaging wit, and he is fond of quoting the former University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, or Yeats, or what he learned from his father, growing up in Birmingham, Alabama—sometimes all three and sometimes trying the patience of his listeners.

Raines’s eyes are nearly black; in photographs, even when he’s half smiling, they convey an unsmiling intensity. That intensity has excited and occasionally alarmed the inhabitants of the world’s most powerful newsroom, who often ask if this son of hill-country Alabamans is comfortable leading a newspaper staffed by Ivy Leaguers. They see that he enjoys power and is unafraid to use it, but wonder why he is often hostile to others who hold it. What is clear, a little more than a year since it was announced that he would succeed Joseph Lelyveld in the top job, is that Howell Raines is quickening the pulse of the Times.

Raines has been waiting for this chance for years. His friend R. W. (Johnny) Apple, Jr., the paper’s political sage, recalled a trip they took to South Africa in 1995, when Raines talked about one day becoming executive editor. “‘I’m not at all sure I’ll get it, but I’ll be ready if I get it. I’m going to prepare myself,’” Apple remembers Raines saying. In early 2001, Lelyveld told Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., the Times’s chairman and publisher, that he planned to retire as executive editor; and when Sulzberger decided that his choice was between Raines and Bill Keller, the managing editor, Raines had indeed prepared. “I knew that I wanted to raise the competitive metabolism of the paper,” Raines said to me during a series of interviews this winter and spring. When Sulzberger asked him what he might do as executive editor, he told the publisher that he “wanted to enliven the front page with more exclusive breaking news—original stories.” He knew that, unlike almost every other newspaper in America, the Times’s daily circulation was growing—by April of 2001 it had reached 1.15 million—but that this growth came from the national edition, introduced in 1980, which now accounted for nearly half of the paper’s readers.

To continue its expansion, Raines argued, the Times had to become "a  must read” for new customers, and he described the paper in somewhat military terms: just as the “Powell doctrine,” promulgated by General Colin Powell, declared that American troops should be sent into battle only if they had enough force to overpower the enemy, so Raines proposed covering big stories with the overwhelming force of the newspaper—some twelve hundred editorial employees who work in newsrooms on the third and fourth floors of the Times Building, on West Forty-third Street, and in offices scattered throughout the building as well as in twenty-eight foreign and ten domestic bureaus. He believed the Times was competing for eyeballs with every newspaper and magazine. In particular, he saw the Journal taking aim at the Times, and he rejected the “dangerous mind-set at the Times that we can’t compete with the Wall Street Journal on business news. My view is that I want to be General Giap to their Westmoreland.” He would move faster, work harder, catch rivals by surprise.

All of their staff’s nervousness about their ambitious new executive editor took a vacation on the afternoon the paper was awarded an unprecedented seven Pulitzer prizes. “What a day. I’m so proud of you all. I’m so proud of us,” Raines told the newsroom.

Morale soared, but he knew that it might plunge again—as it did a few weeks later when the newsroom learned that the investigative editor Stephen Engelberg, who had just won his third Pulitzer, was leaving for the Portland Oregonian. The newsroom blamed Raines for losing Engelberg, though he told those he trusted that his move was a “life-style decision.”

In an odd way, the seven Pulitzers also worried newsroom veterans. Would Raines become more cocksure?

Raines wasn’t happy about these doubts, but he insisted that his focus was on improving his newspaper. He felt free enough to pour himself a glass of bourbon and water in his small back room. “Change always takes people out of their comfort zone,” Raines said one evening. “I’m not rattled by the friction of the moment. You have to set your sights on a beacon that that is a journalistic ideal, and it’s important not to get knocked off course by those winds of criticism. The caricature of me that I see in some of these accounts is completely unrecognizable to me. And therefore not particularly disturbing. I know who I am and I know where I will come out.” 

Backstory Introduction

The Howell Doctrine

Demolition Man

Synergy City

New York's Tabliod Wars

The New York Times's Outward Bound Adventure

The Reporter Who Disappeared

Fee Speech

The Don

Gotcha: Canidates versus Press

Inside Out

Fox News: We Report. We Decide.

Family Business

Fortress Bush

Acknowledgments
Index
As up-to-date as a cable news banner, Backstory is an invaluable guide to the most important players in our information age. (Walter Cronkite)

What do you hope to accomplish with your latest book, “Backstory: Inside The Business of News”?

To shine a light on the news business today. There is much talk about bias in the media, whether there is an operative “liberal” or “conservative” bias. The bias we talk too little about is the media’s “economic” bias -- to drive up ratings or circulation with conflict, with sharp or loud opinions, with the latest “scoop” on Michael Jackson or a shark attack.

How does this make you feel about the current state of journalism?

I feel both hopeful, and depressed. Hopeful because technologies like digital cable and the Internet offer so many more choices for consumers of news. Depressed because, increasingly, journalistic divisions are part of giant companies who demand profit margins and “efficiencies” that often war with good journalism, which is expensive.

The synergy you speak of, does this conflict with journalistic independence?

There’s a basic cultural clash between journalism and business, and it’s one my book attempts to explore. As businesses grow larger, they naturally want to create “synergies” between their various departments, want to lower the walls between divisions, want to instill a “team culture.” But journalism often operates on a different set of values. To us, “synergy” sometimes means using journalism to shill for a sister division. We don’t want the wall between advertising and news to be lowered. We prize independence more than teamwork.

As you were putting the book together, going back over your old New Yorker columns, is there anything you were surprised about? Anything you were particularly right or particularly wrong about?

I offer a postscript at the end of each piece that suggests where I was sometimes wrong, or right. Perhaps the event that most surprised me was the firing of Howell Raines at the New York Times. My profile, which is the first piece in this book, was written a year before he was fired. While I am satisfied that the profile hit the bulls eye in alerting readers to Raines’ weaknesses as well as strengths, I was stunned that little more than a year after his greatest successes the publisher would come to believe that Howell Raines could not change and had to be terminated.

You're a full-time journalist. Do you think you have enough distance from both the media and from politics when you write your pieces in The New Yorker?

In journalism you always have enough distance and don’t get into trouble if you remember who your audience is. You are not writing for the people you profile but for your general readers. Follow this stricture and, inevitably, you make hard decisions that leave people upset. In politics, you try to make friends and to please as many people as possible. In journalism, your loyalty is not to “friends” or to those who granted you access but to your readers.

In “New York’s Tabloid Wars” you discuss the long-standing competition between the Daily News and the New York Post. You’ve worked at both during your career; do you think one will survive the other?

The Daily News has a stronger advertising base and is making money, while the Post is not. But the Post is gaining circulation (in large measure because it cut its price in half). If the Post can gain advertising, and if News owner Mortimer Zuckerman becomes paranoid about competing against Rupert Murdoch’s deeper pockets, he could panic and sell. This is what Murdoch would like.

Over the years you’ve profiled leading figures and companies of the Information Age, including Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, Harvey Weinstein and Howell Raines, is there anyone you hope to profile in the future?

A journalist who would advertise his next project will soon be unemployed, or declared nuts!

In another life, you taught and trained Peace Corps volunteers, served as Special Assistant to the U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce, and worked in Senator Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 campaign for the Presidency among other things. How did you come to write for The New Yorker?

It’s probably a classic case of upward failure. First, I thought I’d be a baseball player. I failed. Then I wanted to be a diplomat. Then help elect a President or Governor. I loved the independence journalism promised and, unemployed, I started freelancing. I wound up writing a political column for the Village Voice and longer investigative pieces for New York Magazine. In 1977, William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker, phoned and asked if I might like to write for his magazine. I jumped at the opportunity.

What makes a good journalist?

A good journalist is an educator, has as much of a calling as a public official. In a democracy, people depend on the information they receive from journalists to help them make decisions. That’s not a small responsibility.


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