Meta-media mania

If there’s anything objectionable about Backstory: Inside the Business of News, it’s that it should be titled Oldstory or maybe Ken Auletta’s Greatest Hits: 1993-2003. Not that this is a big deal; potential buyers just should know that it’s a collection rather than a new piece of work.

For the unaware, Ken Auletta is The New Yorker magazine’s resident media critic, where he’s written the “Annals of Communications” column since 1992. If you find yourself the subject of one of his profiles, congratulations: You’re now an official mogul or player, or the pedigree of your fame has ascended another rung on the stairway to immortality.

Auletta’s trick is twofold. The first is access. Though all journalists’ phone calls may be equal, calls from The New Yorker are a lot more likely to be returned. One realizes this is the case during the opening, voluminous profile of The New York Times’ former executive editor, Howell Raines. Auletta is not only allowed to be a fly on the wall at the paper’s famous page-one meetings; he’s also afforded access he describes as “virtually roaming the newsroom at will.”

This is not to say that Auletta merely is greased with connections. His writing is effortless in the way that separates The New Yorker’s journalism from all other publications. The 11 stories that make up this collection read less like actual text and more like the experience of being embedded in a heady but accessible conversation among influence peddlers.

Three pieces shine brightest in Backstory. One is a profile of Raines, whose 18-month reign at the Times witnessed an unprecedented number of Pulitzer Prizes and an internal climate of fear and resentment that boiled over in the Jayson Blair scandal. Though the piece was written pre-Blair, it includes a postscript analysis of the imbroglio that ended with Raines’ resignation. In many ways, the piece is less about Raines than it is about power politics within an institution stocked to the gills with personalities whose intelligence is often matched only by their ambition.

In “Fee Speech,” Auletta takes aim at celebrity journalism and at the ethical issues raised when pundits take speaking fees from lobbyists and other interest groups. Consider National Public Radio (NPR) political analyst Cokie Roberts. Given NPR’s incessant listener fund-raising drives, one might not think her capable of getting an estimated $20,000 a pop for speaking events. According to Auletta, though, she makes more than $500,000 a year from such engagements.

As Auletta suggests, the problem is not with journos like Roberts raking in big money but with their refusal to disclose the source of this income. Many of the journalists with whom Auletta spoke (Roberts, Sam Donaldson and the late David Brinkley among them) defended their lack of disclosure, claiming they’re “private citizens.” As Auletta suggests, unelected as they might be, journalists are in a position of public trust—as we all are painfully reminded when it’s violated.

Providing a dose of levity to Backstory is “The Reporter Who Disappeared,” a profile of John McCandlish Phillips, who reported for the Times alongside such luminaries as Gay Talese and David Halberstam, until he abruptly left the profession in the early 1970s. What shines through this story is the unlikely scenario of a deeply religious man (he was known among the staff as a polite zealot) thriving in a decidedly secular institution until the day the bifurcation of his two worlds proved to be too much. Phillips exemplifies the type of journalist Auletta admires most: the quiet, unassuming reporter who doesn’t “shout rude questions or show off” but just listens quietly.

Auletta has said that too many journalists think they’re stars and that, increasingly, they’re getting paid to talk rather than to listen. Ironically enough, Auletta’s capacity to listen, to provide rich context and quickly insert his thoughts without a trace of heavy-handedness has rendered him a star in his own right. Few would suggest it’s not deserved.