three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
10-May-June-2004
By: 
Ken Auletta
user_rating: 
0

Inside the Business of News

A-BackstoryAs media correspondent for the New Yorker, Auletta knows journalism, and he doesn't like what he sees. In these eleven previously published articles, he argues that increasing synergies between journalism and business, "the battle between Wall Street and Main Street, the latent conflict between shareholders and subscribers," taints our daily news. The Tribune Company, for example, gives its readers softer coverage to keep its stock price up. News anchors like ABC's Cokie Roberts receive money from the organizations they cover. And the fall of the New York Times's former editor, Howell Raines, after the Jayson Blair scandal says it all. "Journalism," Auletta writes, "is an act of faith."
Penguin Press. 296 pages. $24.95.

Pittsburgh Post-Gaz 4 of 5 Stars
"What makes this collection so valuable is that Auletta takes a hard look at his profession and asks high-profile journalists the kind of tough questions they have asked of so many others. ... But he's also a realist, and he fears that the success of such media operations as Fox News, the Chicago Tribune Co. and Imus is dramatically changing our reading and viewing habits." Elizabeth Bennett

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Auletta skillfully shows in this collection of reportorial essays how publishing (a business) affects journalism (not a business), how serving the synergy gods Faster-Louder-Richer can blunt the tools for understanding what journalism at its best provides." Shelby Coffee III

San Antonio Exp-News 3 of 5 Stars
"So, there's nothing really new here, although the author does include postscripts to the stories√Ďand the book at times has the heard-it-before flavor of a greatest hits album rushed out by contractual obligation. But for a deeper understanding of how the big American media works, for a solid forecast of the clouds threatening the state of journalism, there's nobody better than Auletta..." Steve Bennett

Seattle Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Auletta takes a wonkish delight in the machinations of corporate news media, sparing no detail in profiling complicated subjects, vast, bureaucratic news enterprises, and placing their responses to their financial challenges in appropriate context. ... At times, Auletta has the power to translate corporate politics into fast-paced drama." Marc Ramirez

Rocky Mtn News 3 of 5 Stars
"Auletta is at his best when profiling the personalities who shape modern journalism. His columns on the inner workings of the business, however, hold less general interest and already seem dated." John C. Ensslin

SF Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"Backstory should be handed to journalism students and new reporters along with the style manual, for its excellent introduction and its explorations of these ethical concerns, as well as its pithy observations. ... But despite Auletta's attempts to bridge the pieces here with linking paragraphs, the book doesn't really add up to a whole." William Kowinski

Critical Summary

Auletta, whose previous books include Greed and Glory on Wall Street and World War 3.0, is concerned about how the publishing industry affects the practice of journalism, in theory not beholden to profits and losses. Most critics agree that Backstory is a provocative if uneven collection that shows a serious understanding of the trade. Auletta's best pieces examine controversial figures such as Raines and Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes. His less successful ones delve into the grisly (and possibly soporific) details of the business and meander off into unrelated topics. (One interesting but irrelevant article features a reporter who abandoned journalism for religion.) Still, this is Journalism 101 straight from the horse's mouth, with a small (very small) silver lining: if you become a journalist, you might also become famous.