Backstory: Inside the Business of News

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It is said that journalism is a vital public service as well as a business, but more and more it is also said that big media consolidation; noisy, instant opinions on cable and the Internet; and political “bias” are making a mockery of such high-minded ideals. In Backstory, Ken Auletta explores why one of America’s most important industries is also among its most troubled. He travels from the proud New York Times, the last outpost of old-school family ownership, whose own personnel problems make headline ...

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It is said that journalism is a vital public service as well as a business, but more and more it is also said that big media consolidation; noisy, instant opinions on cable and the Internet; and political “bias” are making a mockery of such high-minded ideals. In Backstory, Ken Auletta explores why one of America’s most important industries is also among its most troubled. He travels from the proud New York Times, the last outpost of old-school family ownership, whose own personnel problems make headline news, into the depths of New York City’s brutal tabloid wars and out across the country to journalism’s new wave, chains like the Chicago Tribune’s, where “synergy” is ever more a mantra. He probes the moral ambiguity of “media personalities”—journalists who become celebrities themselves, padding their incomes by schmoozing with Imus and rounding the lucrative corporate lecture circuit. He reckons with the legacy of journalism’s past and the different prospects for its future, from fallen stars of new media such as to the rising star of cable news, Roger Ailes’s Fox News. The product of more than ten years covering the news media for The New Yorker, Backstory is Journalism 101 by the course’s master teacher.

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Editorial Reviews

San Antonio Express News
For a deeper understanding of how the big American media works...there's nobody better than Auletta.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
If you want to know what's really happening in...newspaper and television journalism, this is the book to read.
Publishers Weekly
Like Auletta's earlier The Highwaymen, this is a collection of the author's work as media correspondent for the New Yorker, but the focus has shifted away from the individual toward the institutional. The book starts with a 2002 profile of then New York Times executive editor Howell Raines, depicting his attempts to redefine the paper's approach to journalism and foreshadowing his departure in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair scandal. Because of Raines's notoriety, it's an obvious choice to lead off with, but that decision affects the meta-narrative running through the book's first half. A string of articles dealing with newspapers around the country (including a look at New York's battling tabloids that didn't make it into the New Yorker because it wasn't "colorful" enough) examines the tension between editorial and business concerns, culminating in a 1993 look at the Times with open speculation about who would succeed the person who held the job before Raines and what it might mean for the newsroom. Alas, the moving profile of former Times reporter John McCandlish Phillips, who abandoned a promising career in journalism to devote himself to Christian evangelism, seems out of place amid the corporate chronicles. Yet its significance becomes clearer as subsequent pieces emphasize the growing lack of humility among contemporary journalists. Two final stories look at media startups that failed ( and succeeded (Fox News), the latter bringing us up-to-date with the network's coverage of the war in Iraq. By putting these articles together, Auletta provides a valuable perspective on how the pressures of business have affected how we read and watch the news. Agent, Esther Newberg. (On sale Dec. 29) Forecast: Auletta regularly appears on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, The Charlie Rose Show and Nightline, and his numerous media connections should result in lots of coverage of this book. A five-city tour, blurbs from Walter Cronkite and Gay Talese, and national ads will help, too. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Media critic for The New Yorker, Auletta (World War 3.0) here offers another tale of the corrosive effects of power and wealth on a profession-in this case, print and broadcast journalism. Auletta delivers an unblinking view of the gray interface between the business of journalism and the ethics of reporting. He tells us that the business is fueled by synergy (i.e., the simultaneous ownership of broadcast, print, and entertainment outlets), set in motion by team culture, leverage, and other nebulous but au courant corporate clich s. Meanwhile, the work of newsgathering and reporting is withering under this entrepreneurial onslaught. In a series of 11 recent essays, Auletta takes to task media behemoths such as Disney, Time Warner, and Viacom for flagrant disregard of all notions of journalistic integrity and seemingly unquenchable lust for an ever-greener bottom line. Given the ongoing debate over recent FCC regulations that eased restrictions concerning the scope of media ownership, Backstory is a timely release on an issue of national concern. And the writing is lively, too. Recommended for medium and larger public libraries, as well as academic collections. [This is the first offering from Penguin Press, former Random House president Ann Godoff's new imprint at Penguin Putnam.-Ed.]-Ari Sigal, MLS, Marion, NC Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Protestations by Fox News and the White House notwithstanding, the "liberal media" is a fiction. And what's killing the news business, writes New Yorker media critic Auletta (Three Blind Mice, 1991, etc.), is that most cherished of capitalist emotions: lust for profit. Independent newsgathering is increasingly rare, as documented in this collection of New Yorker pieces (augmented by one for the American Journalism Review) over the last ten years. Witness, the author offers as one bit of evidence, the bid CBS made to score an interview (presumably exclusive) with celebrity POW Jessica Lynch: an executive wrote to her family to promise exposure on several programs. "But the executive didn't stop there," Auletta writes. "She noted that Viacom, the corporate parent, owned Paramount, which could make a movie of Lynch's heroics, and Simon & Schuster, which could offer a book, and MTV, a popular cable network, which might make her a cohost of a video show, and Infinity Broadcasting, the second largest radio network." Thus the ascendancy of "synergy," which increasingly lowers the long-protected wall between the editorial and business sides of news organizations and dumbs the news down to reach a mass audience. Auletta's pieces include a careful account of the rise and fall of New York Times editor Howell Raines, whose regime collapsed in the wake of scandals involving Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg (who, as if to illustrate that synergy has no shame, has signed on to write Lynch's memoir); a lively sketch of New York's "tabloid wars," whereby its lesser organs of news and opinion scrambled to dominate the market in "a bar fight that . . . is aimed at one overriding goal: to be the last manstanding"; a look at that wall-lowering phenomenon as it played out, dramatically, at the Los Angeles Times under a new management that apparently valued news integrity less than double-digit returns; and a juicy dissection of the Fox Network, which has turned television news into an even louder and more ignorant version of all-talk radio. Eye-opening for news consumers, and useful for journalists hoping to understand the changes sweeping the profession. Agent: Esther Newberg/ICM
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143034636
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 12/28/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.56 (w) x 8.46 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Meet the Author

Ken Auletta has written the “Annals of Communications” column and profiles for The New Yorker since 1992. He is the author of eight books, including Three Blind Mice, Greed and Glory on Wall Street, and World War 3.0. In naming him America’s premier media critic, the Columbia Journalism Review said, “No other reporter has covered the new communications revolution as thoroughly as has Auletta.” He lives in Manhattan with his wife and daughter.

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Read an Excerpt

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.” 

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Table of Contents

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


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Interviews & Essays

An Interview with Ken Auletta

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 bull's-eye in alerting readers to Raines's 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. undersecretary 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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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 5 of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2013

    To below

    I forgot to put my personality in... and it's like three pages long. May I post my personality in the next result? •~T!mew!nk~•

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2013

    Rm important

    If u got locked out go to the next result

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 17, 2004

    A Good Read

    Like with any book on the media you must learn to sift through the politcal leanings mumbo jumbo to examine the heart of the issue. While other reviewers call the book liberal, I say that while it does have liberal pitch it still outlines some vital facts about the media. It's primary focus serves to remind Americans that news is first and foremost a business. And the money involved is the reason why the left and right argue, their opinions are only the ammunition they select. Covers some interesting issues, but as always in the media 'fair and balanced' exists only in the mind of the reader. For a more conservative perspective try Ann Coulter or Dick Morris. Or better yet read Auletta and Morris and make the decision for yourself.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2004

    If you like liberal bias you'll like this book

    Business is bad, high brow is better than low brow, blah blah.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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