Backstory: Inside the Business of News

Backstory: Inside the Business of News

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by Ken Auletta
     
 

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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,See more details below

Overview

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.

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 (Inside.com) 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
From the Publisher
“Ken Auletta is the thinking man’s press critic, press historian, press observer, press guru. He brings his great knowledge, energy and authority to bear in Backstory. He is the best in the business. Period!” —Ben Bradlee

“The basic calling of the journalist is to report today what will be tomorrow’s history. None practices the craft with greater skill than Ken Auletta, and his specialty long has been the news media in all its forms—print, broadcast, cable and the Internet. In his latest book, the prolific Mr. Auletta takes us to the news industry’s back rooms, where we meet some of the noted actors in dramatic confrontation as the business executives and the editorial side try to toe, not always successfully, the thin line between profit and journalistic ethics. Auletta’s book is as up to date as a cable news banner and is an invaluable guide to the most important players in our information age.” —Walter Cronkite“With his latest book, Ken Auletta reaffirms his position as our nation’s leading chronicler and critic of the communications business— the liars and the truth seekers, the media moguls and the spin meisters, the old and the new. Auletta’s work focuses our attention on what’s so extraordinary about the news industry’s transformation in recent times and what’s so troubling.”  —Gay Talese

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781101495568
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
12/28/2004
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
368
File size:
0 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

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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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher

“Ken Auletta is the thinking man’s press critic, press historian, press observer, press guru. He brings his great knowledge, energy and authority to bear in Backstory. He is the best in the business. Period!” —Ben Bradlee

“The basic calling of the journalist is to report today what will be tomorrow’s history. None practices the craft with greater skill than Ken Auletta, and his specialty long has been the news media in all its forms—print, broadcast, cable and the Internet. In his latest book, the prolific Mr. Auletta takes us to the news industry’s back rooms, where we meet some of the noted actors in dramatic confrontation as the business executives and the editorial side try to toe, not always successfully, the thin line between profit and journalistic ethics. Auletta’s book is as up to date as a cable news banner and is an invaluable guide to the most important players in our information age.” —Walter Cronkite

“With his latest book, Ken Auletta reaffirms his position as our nation’s leading chronicler and critic of the communications business— the liars and the truth seekers, the media moguls and the spin meisters, the old and the new. Auletta’s work focuses our attention on what’s so extraordinary about the news industry’s transformation in recent times and what’s so troubling.” —Gay Talese

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