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Meet the (Meta)Press: Ken Auletta

The New Yorker's media writer comes out with a new book and talks to mb about the business, his articles, and learning to talk to the bosses.

- January 6, 2004

For more than a decade, Ken Auletta has been The New Yorker's media columnist, authoring both the magazine's regular "Annals of Communications" column and a series of lengthy and insightful profiles of media-world players. His pre-Jayson Blair profile of Howell Raines brought to the fore the poisonous atmosphere at the paper under Raines's editorship; his Harvey Weinstein profile elicited a dog-like snarl from Richard Gere at the Golden Globes, in the Miramax honcho's defense. Earlier in his career, Auletta was a political reporter and columnist for the city's tabloids; he started writing for The New Yorker in 1977 and moved to the media beat after publishing Three Blind Mice, a history and analysis of the three television networks that became a national bestseller. His most recent book, Backstory, is a collection of his New Yorker pieces, and he spoke to mb recently about the book, the columns, and the state of the media business.

Birthdate: April 23, 1942
Hometown: Coney Island, Brooklyn
First section of the Sunday Times: Sports

Your new book is called Backstory: Inside the Business of News. Why is it important to understand the business of news, and how is that business changing?
There are several themes in the book that relate to the business of news. One is that there's a lot of chatter and talk about political biases seeping into press coverage. Fox News claims the liberal bias dominates, and liberals claim that Fox and Rush Limbaugh and The Wall Street Journal—that a conservative bias dominates. In fact, my argument is that the much more pervasive bias in the media today is an economic bias, which is a business bias—the corporatization of the media. These giant companies that increasingly own journalistic entities are concerned about keeping their profit margins and stock prices up. To do that, they feel they've got to get the circulation up, and the rates up, and that drives them to put pressure on these media to do more sensational news, more conflict news, more gotcha news and more infotainment news—O.J., Michael Jackson, Laci Petersen—and inevitably, that leads to the softening of the news. But it's driven by economic forces.

That sounds similar to Eric Alterman's argument in What Liberal Media?—that corporatism is what really biases news.
He's a little more conspiratorial than I would be. A lot of this happened out of panic. It's not that the editor of a newspaper, or the assignment editor at a TV station or a network, is sitting there and saying, "How can I please my ultimate boss?" Every day, they look at the ratings, or they look at the circulation, and they think, "What can we do to increase it?" And part of it is saving their own skin. They know that if numbers continue to decline, they'll be out of a job, and so they worry about job security, they worry about catching a story—that they'll be first with something, which is another motivation that should not be minimized.

Also, you've got this immense cultural clash taking place. The business culture of these giant companies basically says, "We need to inspire synergy within this company, we need to lower the borders between our divisions, we need to create teamwork, we need to make this a more community-oriented kind of place where people are thinking about not just news, but business." But the news culture is a very different culture; it's not a team culture, it's an independent culture. It's a culture that, when they hear the word synergy, they often think of shilling. "You want us to do Good Morning America from Disney World? That to you is synergy, but to us, that's shilling." "You want to lower the walls, and you think that's great, but I don't want the walls lowered between the business side and ad sales and news. I want to keep that wall up high, keep them the hell out of the newsroom."

So what happens in the future with that clash? Is there any way the newsy side can win?
It can't win. What the people on the news side have to do is figure out a language to communicate to their owners in a way that treats them as partners, because in fact they are partners. The news people only have one weapon in their gun; the only piece of ammunition they have is the brand. When business people talk about brands, they talk about brand extending. When a journalist talks about brand, it's not brand, it's about credibility. We have to figure out some way to say that if we do too much talk of synergy or what we think of as shilling, or if you want to lower the number of overseas bureaus, or you want to reduce our investigative reporting, what impact will all of that have on our credibility?

If it impacts our credibility, then you've killed the brand, which is something the business people understand and believe in. We have to figure out a language that says, "All right, if you want to get your profit margins up from 8 to 16 percent, if you don't think 8 percent is enough—we do, but if you don't think it's enough—then understand that in order to do that, to double our profit margins, here's the choices we have. You want to close the bureau in the state capital? Do you want to close two of the five overseas bureaus? Do you want to cut out all of your investigative reporting that wins the awards for this publication?" Somehow we've got to quantify for the business side what the consequences of their decisions are.

Are there any news organizations now that are doing that more successfully than others, speaking the right language to their corporate people?
It goes back to something that people at the Times and The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post have said for years: What you want is a good publisher. You want a publisher who understands the business you're in, and basically says, "I want to make a profit, because if I don't make a profit we're not going to have a successful publication. But it's more important for me not to cut the bureaus or to cut the investigative reporting, because in the long run, I know that's what makes this publication what it is, and this media outlet what it is."

Fine. So it's great to work for an Arthur Sulzberger or a Don Graham, but how do you get all the other owners in the world to drink that Kool-Aid?
Somehow you want to try and create a dialogue that educates people who don't come out of the world of journalism, who come out of the world of business. I remember when I was doing Three Blind Mice, Bob Wright said, "I want to bring in McKinsey and analyze how NBC News does its reporting." And one of the things McKinsey came back with was a report that half of all the pieces that NBC News did never get on the air. Now that's pretty goddamn wasteful. Even if you got it down to half of that, so that a quarter of them didn't get on, that's hundreds of thousands of dollars, millions of dollars in savings. Maybe that means, let's get our assignment desk, instead of just assigning everything, is there some way we can improve the procedure so we can have better predictability of what might get on air? In journalism, you'll never have total predictability, but that's part of the education we have to provide these business people.

We have to tell them how inefficient journalism is—the planes, the schedules, you wait for trains to come, you wait for calls to be returned. And sometimes you can't do a story in a day, sometimes it'll take you three days. From a business person's point of view, that seems pretty wasteful. But if you want to get the facts right, and you want to talk to the right people, maybe you need three days. That's all part of the dialogue that often doesn't take place.

You'd been a New York City politics reporter before you did Three Blind Mice. What moved you on this media beat in the first place?
My theory is that journalism is like a free airplane ticket. It can fly you to a different planet. And I have visited several planets before: I'd written about politics—city government and city politics and national politics—I'd written about business, I'd written about poverty. I had visited various planets. Then I said, "Well, I don't know a lot about television, network television particularly, and it seems it's changing before my eyes. I'd like to explore that." I explored, basically, an industry going through profound changes because of the onslaught of cable and other competition, the way the Internet world that I write about now is challenging old established industries. That book came out, and Tina Brown contacted me and asked me whether I would consider writing the "Annals of Communications." I first said no, because I was thinking of writing a biography, which I'd never done before, that might be an interesting new planet to go visit. Anyway, one thing led to another and I eventually agreed to do the column.

The interesting thing about being a journalist covering the journalism business is that you're doing something where you're both an observer and a participant. Particularly as you've become a media-world figure—and also when your wife, Amanda Urban, is one of the biggest literary agents—are you cognizant while you're reporting things that you're not just looking in on a world but rather looking at a world that you are a very much a part of?
I don't think a lot about it, frankly. I don't write about my wife, and I'm not going to write a profile of someone who's one of her clients, for conflict reasons. And if I did, hopefully my editor would catch it and kick my ass. One of the things I don't like about journalism today—and this is another theme of my book—is journalists thinking that they're stars, that they are personages in their own right. When you appear regularly on television and give these lectures and are asked to express opinions, you lose the essential thing you need to be a good journalist, which is being a good listener. I mean, yes, you've got to be a reasonably clear writer and reasonably intelligent and reasonably careful and get your facts correct, but the first thing you've got to be is a good listener, to listen to what the other person is saying and actually hear them, and shut up so that you're not talking all the time because otherwise they won't talk. I'm a listener, and hopefully I retain some humility to listen. I don't feel when I walk into a room that I am a personage; I have enough control of my ego that I don't have to out what I think or fill the void. My job is to shut up and listen.

There's a common descriptor of your work—it's quoted in the press materials for the book—that you're "the mogul Boswell." That's a compliment to you as a listener, I guess, that you give moguls their chances to be Johnsons. But it's also used somewhat critically, that you're too generous to the people you cover. Michael Wolff, in his book, called you a "mogul fanzine writer." What do you think of that kind of criticism?
I think it confuses getting access with what you do with that access. There's an assumption that if Rupert Murdoch is talking to you, or if John Malone is talking you, or if Michael Eisner, Howell Raines, or Harvey Weinstein is talking to you, that they just gave you that gift. Getting access is incredibly laborious. It takes months sometimes. And I think what happens is that people look at how unusual it is that these people are talking to someone and allowing them in their office, and they just assume that I've become their message board for the world. But I think if you read the pieces, they're not that.

What I'm trying to do is to understand these people. If I do Rupert Murdoch or Bill Gates or Howell Raines, my job is to get inside that person and understand what makes them tick. One of the reasons people will talk to reporters is if they honestly believe the reporter is trying to understand them—it's not the only reason they'll talk. They talk because they have vanity, they talk because they're convinced they'll blow it by you, they'll talk because they're worried that you're talking to the enemy, they'll talk because they think you have a prestigious publication they want to be in. People talk for lots of different reason. But one of the reasons they talk is if they feel you really do want to be a Boswell, you really do want to understand what makes them tick and what they do. If someone says "fanzine," I just dismiss it; I don't think it's true.

Fair enough. So Wolff, of course, is the other guy who in his own way tries to understand what moguls are doing. In the last month or so, he very publicly tried to become a mogul himself. Any similar aspirations?
No. I love my independence. I'm not tied down to an office, I'm not responsible for a lot of other people, I'm not dealing with financial investors and six people, which would have been the case in the Michael Wolff situation, each of whom want to be at the head of the table. I was once a manager and an executive years ago, in another life. I had to read a budget and hire and fire people and all. But I like that feeling of independence I have now, and it's something that I don't want to lose.

Jesse Oxfeld is editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com. Photo courtesy of The New Yorker. You can subscribe to The New Yorker here and buy Backstory at Amazon.com.



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