The Denver Post
January 18, 2004
By Dylan Foley
In his new book, "Backstory: Inside the Business of News" (Penguin Press, 297 pages, $24.95), New Yorker media columnist Ken Auletta takes a bleak look at the condition of America's newspapers and broadcast newsrooms. Auletta has found a lack of humility in the newsroom, where prominent journalists are more concerned with becoming paid pundits than asking questions, and lines between advertising and news are often crossed.
In his essays from the past decade, Auletta explores how news is made in the modern media corporations. Auletta paints a pessimistic picture of the modern "synergy" in large news groups, like the Tribune Co., where the TV, newspaper and Web components are cross-pollinated but may harm news quality. Auletta also examines Fox News and how the gleeful diatribes of Bill O'Reilly and others are marketed as "fair and balanced."
"I have a bleak view of too much of what goes on in contemporary journalism," said the 61-year-old Auletta from his home in New York City. "Some of it is for obvious reasons - there is too much 'gotcha,' too much infotainment, too much Laci Peterson, Michael Jackson and O.J. Reporters are trying to report the most sensational thing that happened, not the most important thing."
For Auletta, the problem is the clash between the business and news sides of the media companies. "There is a profound culture clash between the business culture, the people who own most media outlets, and the journalistic culture," he said.
Journalists fear the destruction of the sacred wall between advertising and editorial. "What you see are giant media companies that are by and large run by people who do not come out of the world of journalism and whose value systems stress, 'We want synergy, we want teamwork,"' said Auletta. "This is a very different culture than the culture of the newsroom that says, 'We want to keep the wall up between ad sales and the newsroom. Synergy too often means shilling to us. We don't want to do the "Today Show" from Disneyland."'
Auletta covers the dark side of the news business in 11 masterful essays. He follows the Los Angeles Times' scandal in 1999, where an advertising section sponsored by the Staples Center was passed off as an editorial supplement. In a piece that took four months to write, Auletta witnesses the hubristic rise and fall of Howell Raines as executive editor of the New York Times in last year's plagiarism scandal. As writer, Auletta's fluid prose and analytical approach open up the media world to the reader.
In a long essay on the Tribune Co., the Chicago-based company that owns the Chicago Tribune and numerous TV and radio stations, he writes of the dangers of "synergy."
"The Tribune Company has been a pioneering newspaper company in understanding and investing in the Internet," said Auletta. "They've also been early in claiming that synergy is important: 'We'll open up a cable TV arm, a radio arm, a website and a newspaper. Why can't they all work out of the same bureau?' The problem with that is when you look at Chicagoland, the Trib's 24-hour cable news channel in the suburbs, it is all repeated information. They are not reporting something new."
The battle for newspaper dominance goes on in the Chicago suburbs, and the first casualty may be unbiased journalism. "Even though the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times are city newspapers, the suburbs is where they want to be, because that is where the affluent readers are," said Auletta. "To make inroads in the suburbs, you have to take on these suburban newspapers and you have to do community reporting.
"The arguments by the business/synergy types is that you have to get involved in the community," he said. "They want to have advertising people sit in meetings with the news people. An advertising guy selling ads to a restaurant would love that restaurant review to be a good one. The pressure in the suburban newsroom is to be good to the community."
As large corporations like Gannett snap up local newspapers and other media, local coverage is destroyed. "As you look at the conglomeratization of the news media, you get consolidation and a diminishment of local ownership," said Auletta. "Gannett is a huge national chain, and the owners are outside landlords. Increasingly, these owners, be it Gannett or a radio station owned by Clear Channel or a broadcast network owned by Fox, their idea of synergy is cost synergy - we can reduce our costs if we provide uniform services. You inevitably reduce local reports and local news. And since the ownership is in fewer hands, there is less diversity."
What rankles Auletta the most is the loss of humility in journalism. One symptom of this is the lucrative speaking fees that broadcast journalists like Sam Donaldson or Cokie Roberts receive from special interest groups, which Auletta reveals to great comic effect in his essay "Fee Speech."
"One of the things that has happened to journalism is the loss of humility," said Auletta. "When you become the star, the center of attraction or the well-known face on cable TV, you lose what is essential for journalists - the ability to ask questions. Inevitably what happens is you get a bunch of loudmouth performers who call themselves journalists."
Despite his pessimism over the state of American journalism, Auletta holds onto two hopes: working journalists and the Internet.
"Most journalists I know get up in the morning and are trying to do good,' said Auletta. "They are trying to do their jobs as honestly as they can and they are imbued with a sense of public service. They are trying to do a good job against space and ownership limitations
``And despite the conglomeratization of journalism, there is the Internet," he added, ``which makes it possible for people to self-publish. It is possible for readers to get diverse sources. That scares the heck out of media moguls. It is a distribution source they don't control."