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BACKSTORY

Inside the Business of News

By Ken Auletta

Penguin Press; 296 pp; $24.95

Ken Auletta is the James Bond of the media world, a man who combines the probing mind and easy charm of a top intelligence agent with the glamour that befits the holder of a high-profile job. In the past decade, Auletta, the media critic for The New Yorker, has set his sights on a variety of media targets, often getting both access and time for a thorough exploration. The result: stories that give readers an intimate feel for the drama within the institutions that set the national news agenda. Several of those articles form the heart of Backstory: Inside the Business of News. There is extra material as well: an American Journalism Review article and one piece that was rejected by The New Yorker, along with postscripts that bring Auletta's articles up to date.

There is plenty here to amuse and instruct. That said, one must admit to a lingering disappointment: Some of the topics are so fast-changing that they cry out for more than a few paragraphs of updating. And the author's efforts to link up the chapters are strained at best. Is it really necessary to segue forcibly between, say, shock-jock Don Imus and Presidential campaign-reporting before leaping to the dot-com debacle at Inside.com? Backstory is better viewed as a collection of disparate pieces that roam across the newsroom -- or the psychological landscape -- of its key occupants. Some focus on the "business" of news; others are more profiles of characters who just happen to be journalists.

Those characters often make for the most compelling reading in the collection. In particular, there is an account of John McCandlish Phillips Jr., a man whose gentle manner and exquisite prose -- focused on such wide-ranging subjects as a Jewish official in the American Nazi Party and the last piece of cheesecake sold at Lindy's Restaurant -- made him a legendary reporter at The New York Times. The author recounts how, in 1973, Phillips left the journalism business to devote himself to the New Testament Missionary Fellowship, a church he co-founded. A 1993 article provides insights into Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. -- then the newspaper's 41-year-old novice publisher, who was trying to move the Gray Lady toward more democracy and change. Auletta also probes deeply into the mind of Howell Raines, the passionate and often autocratic Southerner who led the Times for a year before being fired in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal. It's a fascinating tale, and Auletta adds 5,000 words that didn't appear in the original piece.

More than a third of Auletta's book is devoted to the iconic Times. But the author also explores a range of troubling trends in other parts of the industry. He casts a critical eye on the rise of Fox News and its brand of jingoism. With the network's penchant for puerile jokes and cheap shots -- the hosts of morning show Fox & Friends, for example, accused CNN anchor Aaron Brown of looking like a dentist -- and its larger-than-life chairman, Roger Ailes, the subject is ripe for examination. Auletta takes aim at what he sees as Fox's "one-note coverage and the disproportionate number of conservative commentators," taking care to give CNN's Brown the last word. As the most recent piece, having first been published in May, 2003, this naturally seems the freshest.

Some of the other sections show their age. Take, for example, a short article on "Demolition Man" -- as Auletta dubs former Los Angeles Times publisher Mark H. Willes. He is perhaps best remembered as the man who tried to publish a special magazine devoted entirely to the 1999 opening of the Staples Center. After a while, it came to light that, since the Times was one of the center's founding partners, the magazine was nothing more than a promotional vehicle disguised as journalism. Auletta's profile of Willes, which appeared two years before the Staples Center events, presciently chronicled that executive's effort to break down the traditional barriers between advertising and editorial functions. But the story is too short to give readers a good understanding of the characters -- and too old to be relevant.

Auletta's analysis of New York's tabloid wars, written in the winter of 2002, is the only complete article not published before. The author explains that it got killed because his New Yorker editors wanted a "colorful, inside-the-tabloids piece" and this was a business story. One tidbit: New York Post Publisher Lachlan Murdoch's admission that the paper was losing close to $40 million a year. That statement, made last year, is now generating buzz in the media world.

Such is the public interest in big media -- and few are more attuned to its potency than Ken Auletta. His ability to rise above the minutiae of the power struggles and egos to consider broader issues is also why people seek out his work. Those readers should find Backstory's tales compelling, even if they are left longing for a more comprehensive narrative on where the news business stands today. By Diane Brady


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