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.
Mr. Auletta’s questions would have had more weight had they not been instigated by a group of lawmakers notorious for flying off on private jets to tropical resorts for a week of golfing, all paid for by corporations that have millions riding on their votes.
Not surprisingly, nearly all the reporters refused to answer Mr. Auletta’s questions about the number of speeches they gave, to whom and the amounts they were paid. So much for full public disclosure. But a few, like Fred Barnes, had the presence of mind to state the obvious: “They’re elected officials, I’m not … I don’t deal with taxpayers’ money.”
Mr. Auletta’s professional indignation over money-grubbing journalists veers sharply in a short chapter originally intended as a profile of John McCandlish Phillips, a rising star at the New York Times who literally dropped out of journalism to pursue a vocation as a Christian evangelist. Mr. Phillips’ colleagues, recalling his extraordinary writing talents,act as though hecommited suicide or was afflicted by a protracted case of Mad Cow Disease instead of a spiritual calling.
Mr. Auletta himself appears no less puzzled, going so far as to report on Mr. Phillips’ paltry income and miserable living and working conditions since abandoning journalism. Unsaid but implicit in Mr. Auletta’s reporting is the question: “Why would any sane person turn their back on a promising, lucrative career at the New York Times to devote their lives and talentsto merely God?” Why, indeed.
Regrettably, Mr. Auletta’s moral vexations seem almost absent in the book’s two most revealing chapters examining the decline of the New YorkTimes newsroom operations. If he wasn’t a creature of the entrenched New York media culture he might have predicted the fall of the Old Gray Lady years ago. Instead, his reporting represents the anatomy of disaster in the making.
One article in “Backstory,” originally published in 1993, covers the appointment of the Times family heir apparent, Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger Jr., to succeed his father as publisher. Even though the Times had already embraced nearly every goofy politically-correct tenet it espoused in its news and opinion columns — including, as one senior editor bragged, a policy to “stop the hiring of nonblacks and set up an unofficial little quota system” — the younger Mr. Sulzberger wasn’t impressed.
He wanted a “bottom-up” system where the workers were in charge, decisions were arrived at through consensus, all sensitivities were addressed and diversity — code for excluding white, Christian males — was practiced with a near-religious fervor.
A radical ‘60s-style zealot — he is proud of his arrest record at anti-Vietnam War protest rallies — Mr. Sulzberger set out to upend his senior executives, to strip them of authority through the adoption of a Zen-like management system once used in postwar Japan, one he had read about in a David Halberstam book.
Much of Mr. Auletta’s profile is laugh out loud funny, though I doubt he or Mr. Sulzberger intended to evoke that reaction. When, for example, Mr. Sulzberger was told by Times staffers they were anxiety-ridden before the daily page-one meeting — at any newspaper a rigorous exercise where editors must defend their reasons for front page placement of a story — he ordered a change. At the next page-one meeting, the sensitive staff were greeted with chilled wine, shrimp and smiles all around, more a cocktail party than a serious editorial function. Then there’s Mr. Sulzberger’s “defining moment,” the single event he claims shaped his life and beliefs. That, he said, was a four-week Outward Bound adventure he took while in high school, the kind of outdoors vacation usually reserved for rich frat boys with weight problems and inner-city delinquents.
Pretty tame stuff considering that after one antiwar march he told his father that if he had a choice between seeing a young American soldier and a young North Vietnamese soldier being shot, “I would want to see the American get shot. It’s the other guy’s country.”
With that level of contempt for the American military and an equal disregard for authority, it was just a matter of time before Mr. Sulzberger connected with his Times soul mate, Howell Raines. Eventually Mr. Sulzberger appointed Mr. Raines to lead an already fractured, dispirited and rebellious Times newsroom that Mr. Sulzberger himself had created.
A companion article to this piece, “The Howell Doctrine,” first ran in June 2002, just months after Raines was named executive editor and exactly a year before he was forced to resign in disgrace following the Jayson Blair scandals, “journalistic felonies,” as Mr. Auletta put it. Mr. Raines’ rabid leftist ideology, coupled with his outright hatred toward all things and people Republican, made him and Mr. Sulzberger “kindred spirits.”
But it was his arrogant, tyrannical management style that had already begun to incite the first grumblings of mutiny among the news staff when Mr. Auletta arrived on the scene. Messianic senior editors preaching the gospel of socialism are nothing new at the Times, but Mr. Raines took it to new heights at a time when Mr. Sulzberger’s “empowerment” program for reporters and junior editors was at its apex.
In short, Mr. Raines was about to be hoisted on the same anti-management, diversity-at-any-cost petard he and Mr. Sulzberger worked so diligently to create.
All this would make great Shakespeare but for the fact that one man was left standing, apparently unscathed: the very architect of this debacle, Mr. Sulzberger. But for his genes, there’s little doubt he, too, would have been forced to fall on his sword. Of course, to do so voluntarily would require character and courage, something in very short supply among the players in Mr. Auletta’s nonfiction play — defining Outward Bound experiences notwithstanding.
Carlton Sherwood is a Pulitzer Prize-winning newsman, currently Senior Vice-President of the wvc3 Group in Reston, Va.