- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 7, 2004

BACKSTORY: INSIDE THE BUSINESS OF NEWS

By Ken Auletta

Penguin, $24.95, 320 pages

REVIEWED BY CARLTON SHERWOOD

When I was a young newspaper reporter in the late ‘70s I was convinced lawyers would be the ruination of the press. That was before diversity, the Internet and 24-hour TV cable networks inflicted themselves on newsrooms across the country.

In his new book, “Backstory: Inside the Business of News,” Ken Auletta, media critic for the New Yorker, makes the argument that greed, or, more to the point, corporate greed has corrupted news organizations in general, newspapers in particular. That’s not a hard sell, as most working journalists know.

But Mr. Auletta also makes a case, unintentional I suspect, that the scandal-plagued New York Times is no longer a credible news organization but a dysfunctional social experiment run amok, due largely to the radical leftist dictates of publisher Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger Jr.

Like some of Mr. Auletta’s previous works, “Backstory” is a compilation of several rather windy articles publishedin the New Yorker. For those who don’t normally read that magazine, Mr. Auletta’s reports, taken as a whole, provide fresh insight into the ever-changing and troubling state of American journalism, especially the liberal media elite, of which he is a card-carrying member and, necessarily, an advocate.

Though uneven at times, “Backstory” strings together discussions of some of the country’s most well-heeled and powerful news corporations, including the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times, where traditional barriers between news and corporate divisions have been eroded, occasionally leveled for the sake of higher profits.

The tensions between editorial departments and the business side of the newspapers are nothing new. Disputes over the use of “news space,” even the occasional brawl, are the stuff of newsroom legends. What is different today is the degree and the manner in which business has injected itself into the editorial process, disguising advertising and promotion as news, in what journalists derisively call “infotainment.”

Large media corporations have their own word for it, “synergy”: that is, using news media properties to publicize and sell products from other corporate holdings.

Mr. Auletta is at his best when he digs into this disturbing trend, carefully dissecting the inherent conflict between public-service journalism and the corporate imperative for profits, and the consequences to newspapers when they get caught hustling unsuspecting readers in pursuit of a buck. To his credit, the author is no less critical of his fellow media-elitists who cash in on their celebrityhood by taking speaking fees from large corporations.

Unfortunately, however, he was prompted to chase down the likes of Cokie Roberts, Sam Donaldson, David Broder, Robert Novak and several other Washington insiders only after a couple dozen members of the House Democratic leadership groused about critical press reports on their many corporate-sponsored junkets.

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