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BACKSTORY by Ken Auletta

BACKSTORY

Inside the Business of News

By Ken Auletta

Pub Date: Dec. 29th, 2003
ISBN: 1-59420-000-9
Publisher: Penguin Press

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 man standing”; 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.