That both would talk to Auletta is no surprise since the reporter’s Larry King aplomb in drawing A-listers into his interrogations is the hallmark of an author’s effective, unthreatening modus operandi which, (and I speak having submitted to it myself), appears to have been learned at the Brian Lamb School of Interrogation. Diligence and a poker face have served him in good stead, as one is reminded in what is largely a compilation of revealing New Yorker stories of the past decade.
Indeed, one of the oldest, a 1993 look at changes at The New York Times under a then-new publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., may be more insightful now than at the time. Auletta takes us on a journey through the paper’s attempt to shake up a hidebound culture and improve internal communication, replete with touchy-feely retreats for executives of the nation’s premier news organization. A task force had even been assembled to democratize the institution and alter a fear-laden, top-down culture. In light of the Jayson Blair episode, which at the very least revealed that the hierarchy’s monarchical top was insulated against admonitions from below essentially to “stop this guy before he kills!,” it would appear that very little was learned.
It’s the same with a wonderful 1994 recitation of the “fee speech” which is a fixture of a top sliver of the Washington press, with four-and-five figure speaking fees common for stars and hacks alike, assuming the latter regularly appear on television. Cokie Roberts, Robert Novak, Mark Shields, William Safire, Tim Russert, Fred Barnes, Chris Wallace, Morton Kondracke, Wolf Blitzer, Gloria Borger, the list went on and on and on, back then, and the buckraking is unabated today. Shaking his head all the way, Auletta heard the strained, “I’m not an elected official” defense, which is matched by the “I don’t say anything any different than I would on the air or my column.” It’s situational ethics run amok, a straining to justify unadulterated greed and ethical conflicts generated by first-class airfares and chauffeured sedans to and from the airport. It’s no less unseemly than the craving of well-known reporters and anchors to gain the good will of radio’s Don Imus, a symbiosis Auletta details in another piece, where he catches the opinion-flinging journalists’ scripted “ad-libs” and frequent disdain for those they cover, all to the pleasure of the cannily manipulative Imus, puppeteer of newsies craving designation as hip.
Not all of Auletta’s best evinces old but timeless quality, since he tracks developments of distinctly recent vintage, notably the coming of the Internet and the Keystone Kops hunt for instant riches. His account of the creation of what was originally called InsideDope.com (later Inside.com), envisioned as “a must-read online site for members of the cultural elite,” is a New York-based saga of unadulterated hubris and wasted millions, on a par with any from Silicon Valley’s golden age. It also comes with an important lesson about trying to sell content on the Internet: namely that getting online subscriptions remains a vexing challenge for entrepreneurs and Big Media alike. As one investor with an uneven track record tells the author, “The mentality of the information seeker is: I can find it if I keep looking. Why should I pay for anything? That’s the phenomenon that has not been overcome with time.” And make no mistake, it remains a phenomenon to make boardrooms and newsrooms tremble.
And, yet, for all the alluring insights into big players and issues provided here, there is also a certain claustrophobia both in subject matter and approach. It’s the media world as seen from Manhattan and its consequent fixation on The New York Times and its internal politics rather than the day-to-day operations of huge Gannett or Knight-Ridder chains; the never-ending battle between New York’s tabloid Post and Daily News rather than the truly high-stakes confrontation between cable and satellite television operators; and a profile of Imus rather than hard scrub of the radio goliaths who have stripped bare local stations and homogenized so much of what we hear. It is indicative of the woeful state of elite media coverage in general that one sees virtually nothing about the prime source of news for most of us, namely local television stations, with their two, three and even four hours of newscasts each day. For most Americans, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings are far less influential links to the outside world than the likes (in Chicago) of local anchors Ron Magers, Warner Saunders, and Diann Burns. What kind of job are they (italicize) doing? It would be a true service to offer a systematic, caricature-free analysis of the quality of their newscasts as would be, say, a thorough dissection of Gannett’s typical small-circulation newspaper, or a chronicle of what airs on the 13 commercial radio stations in the Quad Cities, which hug the Mississippi River on the Illinois-Iowa state line, now that all are owned by either San Antonio-based Clear Channel Radio or Atlanta-based Cumulus Broadcasting, Inc.
At the same time, the elitism decried by Ailes is in evidence when it comes to the skepticism, verging on outright condescension, which Auletta displays toward any tampering with a church-state divide of news and business or sharing content among different realms of media companies. Thus, the executives who run my giant company “blather endlessly about synergy” and their editors threaten to lose their “keep-your-distance watchdog” role by cooperating with the business side of their operations (this appears in an unflattering piece, dotted with puzzling factual errors, on Tribune Co., in which, nevertheless Auletta treats my days as a Washington bureau chief with great and much appreciated generosity. A prescient 1997 piece on the ham-handed boss of the Los Angeles Times, a bottom line obsessive brought in from General Mills and later forced out amid a newsroom scandal, cites a magazine publishers’ conference at which “partnerships” with advertisers were encouraged–“Whatever that means,” Auletta hurrumphs at the mention of that ominous word.
He is also openly disdainful of market research, here betraying unadulterated naivete. The newspaper industry’s many problems most certainly include a traditionally reflexive aversion to marketing and basic research. It operates with woefully small outlays for understanding its customers and hawking the product, spending less than one-half of one percent of its revenues on research–a stunningly low total when compared to the average big-time consumer products company or TV station–and only slightly more on marketing. Precious few industries know, and care to know, as little about what customers think of their daily handiwork.
For sure, broadcast executives may lamentably be enslaved to research, given to changing the wardrobe of anchors or playlists of jocks overnight if viewers and listeners decline. But newspapers’ heavy reliance on anecdote is no less troubling, and is surely one reason for the unceasing decline in readership, and lack of interest among youth. To devote substantial sums to market research, or fully to understand advertiser concerns are not the unseemly exercises Auletta believes them to be, especially if one genuinely learns from both, rather than becomes their lapdogs (as we all readily concede that television, radio, and many magazines do). A year ago, I created a new Sunday features section for The Chicago Tribune and have spent time pitching that section to advertisers. And why not? I know more about the section than any Tribune ad sales executive. Have I offered any editorial deals or hinted that I might alter content to make my interlocutions feel cozier? Not for a second. But my mere presence in a room with a Target executive would seem, in Auletta’s eyes, to relegate me to the rabble of amoral hucksters and carnival barkers because I’ve crossed the Rubicon between journalism and commerce. Hogwash. I’ll match my department’s ethical strictures with that of any media organization in the land (excepting, I suppose, the saints at C-Span or Consumer Reports.)
More and more, media are big businesses. Rather than bemoan the loss of a quaint, and mythicized, past, an observer of the industry, especially one as smart, likeable and connected as Auletta, might put aside the knee-jerk snobbery aroused by any invocation of “synergy” or “partnerships” or “marketing” and come to terms with the essence of what these papers, stations and magazines are actually doing editorially. Some of it is pretty impressive, even if it comes riding sky-high profit margins.
Backstory is engaging and insightful, and even includes a wonderful portrait of a truly picturesque character, John McCandlish Phillips Jr., who chucked a great newspaper career for a small Pentecostal church group. But one could have set aside certain facile assumptions and drilled deeper. Just like an Aaron Brown–or, I should say, a good dentist.