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Meta-media mania

An insider looks inside contemporary journalism

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If there's anything objectionable about Backstory, it's that it should be titled Oldstory, or: Ken Auletta's Greatest Hits: 1993-2003. Not that this is a big deal; just 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.

Auletta's trick is twofold. The first is access. While 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 Backstory's 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, but also is afforded access Auletta describes as "virtually roaming the newsroom at will."

This is not to say that Auletta is merely greased with connections. His writing is effortless in the way that separates The New Yorker's journalism from other publications. The 11 stories that comprise 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 the profile of Raines, whose 18-month reign at the New York Times witnessed an unprecedented number of Pulitzer Prizes and an internal climate of fear and resentment that boiled over in the Jayson Blair scandal of last year. While the piece was written pre-Blair, it includes a postscript analysis of the imbroglio that ended with Raines's resignation. In many ways, the piece is less about Raines than 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 the ethical issues raised when pundits take speaking fees from lobbyists and other interest groups. Consider National Public Radio's political analyst Cokie Roberts, who draws an estimated $20,000 a pop for speaking events. According to Auletta, 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 Auletta spoke with (Roberts, the late David Brinkley, and Sam Donaldson among them) defended their non-disclosure, claiming they're "private citizens." Auletta suggests that unelected as they might be, journalists are in a position of public trust -- as we are all painfully reminded when that trust is 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 '70s. What shines through this story is the unlikely scenario of a deeply religious man thriving in a decidedly secular institution until one day, the bifurcation of his two worlds proved to be too much.

Auletta doesn't say it in so many words (though he has in interviews), but Phillips exemplifies the journalist he 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, that increasingly they're getting paid to talk rather than 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.

-- John Dicker

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