JOANNE MYERS: On behalf of the Carnegie Council, I wish you all a very happy new year and thank you for joining us to welcome Ken Auletta to our Books for Breakfast program. This morning he will be discussing his recently released book, Backstory: The Business of News.
While some may argue that there is nothing wrong with treating news as a product for sale, others are just as adamant in asserting that the integrity of the media should be nurtured—as it contains ingredients—such as trust and decency—that spoil easily.
According to our guest this morning, journalism should devote itself to the honest reporting of facts, thereby fulfilling a public trust; a trust that should not be compromised even when threatened by intense competitive pressures from newer forms of media.
In Backstory: The Business of News, our guest delivers an unblinking view of the gray interface between the business of journalism and the ethics of reporting. These essays offer cautionary tales of the corrosive effects of power and wealth on print and broadcast journalism and also provide a valuable perspective on just how the pressures of business have affected the way we read and watch the news.
Mr. Auletta tells us that this business is fueled by a synergy which often uses the news as a promotional tool to back the TV shows, movies, and books of the parent company.
He takes to task media ba-hemoths such as Disney, Time Warner, and Viacom for their flagrant disregard of all notions of journalistic integrity in their unquenchable thirst for an ever-bigger bottom line.
Given the ongoing debate over recent FCC regulations that ease restrictions concerning the scope of media ownership, the publication of Backstorycould not be more timely.
As a media critic for The New Yorkerand author of its "Annals of Communication" column, many of us have benefited from reading Mr. Auletta's clear and interesting accounts of the media happenings of our time.
His ability to rise above the minutiae of the power struggles and egos in this field in order to consider the more salient issues is one of the many reasons we return to his writings time and again.
Prior to joining The New Yorker, Mr. Auletta had worked at most of the daily New York newspapers which includes having a weekly column at the Daily News, he was chief political correspondent for the New York Post, and contributing editor at New York Magazine. He has also written for The Village Voice. Additional articles have appeared in such publications as The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, Vanity Fair, and Esquire.
Not one to solely confine his career solely to print journalism, our guest has hosted numerous public television programs, has served as a weekly political commentator on WNBC and WCBS television in New York, and appears regularly on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer, the Charlie Rose Show, and Nightline. In November 1995, PBS broadcast a frontline documentary on Rupert Murdoch which Mr. Auletta narrated and co-wrote.
His previous eight books include four national bestsellers: Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way; Greed and Glory on Wall Street; The Highwaymen: Warriors of the Information Superhighway, which was discussed here in May of 1997; and World War 3.0: Microsoft and Its Enemies. And with the publication of Backstory, I predict that a fifth best-seller is on the way.
Mr. Auletta was selected as one of the 20th century's top 100 business journalists by a distinguished panel of his peers. He was a Gannett Fellow at Columbia University during 1990 and is a New York Public Library Lion.
In ranking him as America's premier commentator, Columbia Journalism Review concluded that "there is no other reporter who has covered the new communications business as thoroughly as Ken Auletta."
KEN AULETTA:Thank you. I promise not to duplicate what Elizabeth Taylor said to her fifth husband, which was, "This won't take too long."
Let me begin with a true anecdote, one of my favorite stories, which happened in the 1980 Presidential campaign. Jimmy Carter, who was running for reelection against Ronald Reagan, had a Soviet affairs advisor by the name of Dr. Marshall Shulman, who was associated with Columbia University.
Shulman held a background briefing for reporters on foreign policy. One obstreperous reporter raised his hand, and asked, "Dr. Shulman, how would you describe Jimmy Carter's foreign policy on a bumper sticker?"
He answered, "That's a ridiculous question, young man." The reporter said, "No, it's not, because one of the problems with Carter is that it's so complex, people don't understand his policy, and Reagan is very simple about his view of the Soviet Union as an evil empire. So what would your policy be?"
He said, "Young man, I can't answer." The reporter persisted. And Shulman, with a little twinkle in his eye, said, "How many words am I allowed?" The reporter said, "Two." Shulman, without missing a beat, looked at him and said, "Accept complexity."
I have always loved that story because most issues you look at, including the one I will talk about today, journalism and business, are exceedingly complex. When I think of journalism and where it's going, the optimistic side of my brain thinks about the increasing number of choices consumers have today for getting their information. I can get most any newspaper in the world online. On the other hand, there is the pessimistic side of my brain, which tends to dominate when it comes to journalism: where it's going and where it is today. I'm going to dwell on that today.
The main reason for my pessimism is that increasingly today journalistic entities are dominated by giant companies, the goliaths—the Viacoms and the News Corps, the Disneys and the Gannetts—which tend to be run not by journalists but by people who come out of the business side of the operation. These businesspeople remind me of another story—maybe some of you have heard it. It's the story of the wasp and the bullfrog.
The wasp has a broken wing and wants to get across the pond. The wasp says to the frog, "Carry me across, please, my wing is broken."
The bullfrog says, "I'm not going to carry you across. You're a wasp. You'll sting me."
The wasp says, "No, no, I promise. If you carry me across the pond, I won't sting you."
The bullfrog takes the wasp on his back, goes across the pond. They get to the other side. What does the wasp do? He stings the bullfrog. And as the bullfrog is dying, he looks up and he says, "Why did you sting me?" And the wasp says, "What can I tell you? I'm a wasp. That's what I do."
A healthy way to think of the people who run these giant companies that include journalism under their umbrella is as people who, well, that's what they do. They worry about things like synergy, cost-cutting, profit margins, share price, and the need for having a borderless company, which means lowering the walls between divisions. They worry about people promoting each other, and about teamwork. And it's legitimate for them as businesspeople to have those worries.
This morning I want to explore, as Backstorydoes, four of what I consider the deadliest sins of journalism:
1) Synergy.What synergy means, at least to businesspeople, is that one plus one equals four. That is to say, if we can get all parts of our business and our divisions to work together, the whole will be much greater than the individual parts. We can get the news division to promote our entertainment shows by having guests from NBC on the Today show. We can boost the ratings of entertainment shows and also the ratings of news shows.
The same in the music business, the same in all these businesses. That's the notion behind synergy: If you own an entertainment division, you could produce the shows, favor your own shows, put them on the air, and make much more money, particularly when you sell them in syndication.
How do we see synergy at work in the news business? We saw it at work, for instance, at CBS with the Michael Jackson interviewon the news program 60 Minutes. CBS had a deal to produce a Michael Jackson special, and suddenly Jackson appears for his first exclusive interview after the charges against him had been lodged, on 60 Minutes. 60 Minutes says that they have no idea whether any extra money was paid. "We certainly didn't pay any extra money." But Michael Jackson's people say they got over a million dollars. Obviously that's not good for CBS News and its credibility.
We saw it before that. All the television network news divisions bid for Jessica Lynch's story, and in the bids they made to her lawyers, they said that if Jessica Lynch appears on the Today show, we will talk to the entertainment division about doing a special on her, and to the book division about doing a book. We'll get all the divisions to synergize their efforts and help Jessica Lynch. It may help other divisions, but whether it would help the news division is a big question.
One of the reasons the Tribune Company was able to purchase the Times-Mirror Company that owns the Los Angeles Times is that they had a special issue of their magazine at the L.A. Times that was sponsored, without the readers' knowledge, by the Staples Center. All the journalism was about the Staples Center and yet the reader was unaware that the Staples Center was the sponsor of this special issue of the Los Angeles Times Magazine. When the story came out, the head of the company, Mark Willis, lost his job, as did the editor of the L.A. Times. Again, the question of credibility and what impact it had on journalism.
2) The clash between the business culture and the news culture.Teamwork, synergy, cost control, borderless company or lowering the walls are all legitimate objectives for the people who run these giant companies. But the culture of journalism is very different. It's an individual, not a team culture. You go out as a reporter and get your story, and you may have a camera crew, a producer, an editor, but it's a very individualistic culture—a culture that does not pride itself on teamwork or cooperation but rather on an adversarial relationship with people. It's a culture that says, "We don't want to lower the walls behind divisions because we don't want the advertising department to come into the newsroom. We don't want the advertising department to say to us, 'If we had a favorable restaurant review of this restaurant, they would increase their advertising for us.'" That's exactly the last thing a journalist wants to hear.
The culture clash between the business side and the news side is profound and not often discussed.
For instance, there was talk last year about merging CNN and ABC to save, they said, $200 million. From a businessperson's point of view, "What a great idea! I just increased my bottom line by $200 million. That's fabulous." But what is the impact of that on you, the consumer of news? You now get not two sources of news, CNN and ABC, but a combined voice.
And what is the impact of that on the quality of the news reporting? Will it be better? In order to get the savings they want, you've got to close bureaus overseas. No network has more than six bureaus overseas, and CBS at one point had about twenty.
When the public complains after 9/11, "Why didn't we know about the threat from Islam?" one of the reasons they didn't know is that the press wasn't telling them about it. You could also accept complexity and go one step further and ask, "Why wasn't the public interested enough in that?" But, nevertheless, we should not be in the popularity business, which is another cultural imperative of journalists. We should be in the business of telling people what we think they ought to know, and if we don't do that, then we're not a profession.
The idea of a professional is to say, "We think this is important," and that's what we're trained to be able to sort out for the public in a democracy. Another word for credibility, in my judgment, is trust. To do our job we need trust from our readers or viewers, but we also need trust from the people we interview, because if we don't have it, they won't talk to us.
While doing a recent New Yorkerpiece on the Bush administration's media relations, I was stunned at how hostile they are to the press. I say "stunned" within a context. I've done a piece like this on the president and the press in most administrations over the last 20-some-odd years, and one thing that is evergreen is that a president and his team feel that the press hates them or is interested in "gotcha" journalism or in conflict, hence is not serious in some fundamental way. So tension between the White House and the press is not new.
But what is new with the Bush administration is that it acts out its hostility toward the press and its feeling that it doesn't have to talk to us. And it goes even further. This administration doesn't treat the press as if it's a neutral referee, as if we have an obligation to sort out what's going on for the readers or viewers in a democracy. Rather, they treat us as if we're a special interest that is preoccupied with things like "gotcha" headlines, horserace journalism. They aren't entirely wrong.
When you look at Bush's record, one of the ways you measure how they deal with the press is the number of press conferences he has held: eleven in his term. His father held about seventy in a comparable period of time. Ronald Reagan held more than seventy. Bill Clinton held thirty-six.
Bush has held fewer press conferences by a factor of at least three than any President in modern times, including Nixon and Eisenhower. He feels that he doesn't have to talk to the press, doesn't have to accept follow-up questions. The administration argues, "We do talk to the press. We have answered 2,460 questions since he was elected." But most of these questions are raised at photo ops, when the press is ushered into the Oval Office maybe three times a week and allowed to ask roughly three questions. The first two always go to the wire services by Bush's edict. They're interested in, "What about the American soldier killed in Iraq today?" They're interested in the headlines, the little snippets—such as when Bush says, "Well, it's a tragedy and I feel bad."
"Thank you, Mr. President."
"Thanks for coming into my office. You may leave now."
You don't get detailed questions about how policy was made because those are exactly the questions that Bush does not want to talk about.
3) Hubris. Let's look at some examples. Start with Howell Raines and the New York Times. He was an excellent editor who took charge of the Times five days before 9/11, did an absolutely brilliant job by using the strategy, "Let's flood the zone. Let's seize this story and dominate this story." In that six-month aftermath of 9/11, the Timeswas probably as brilliant a newspaper as has ever been published in the world. It was just extraordinary—and not just articles like "Portraits of Grief," but also the detailed coverage in the International Report—that was excellent.
But as you watched Howell Raines during that period, you also saw that, like a figure in Greek mythology, his virtues became his vices. In his autocratic way of demanding that the story be done, he had only one speed, and he continued to keep his foot on the accelerator, which alienated people and made for a lot of unhappiness.
If people think of themselves as professionals, they want to think that they're making decisions. But if the autocrat and chief is making all the decisions, if he does not have the humility to ask people questions but rather tells them the answer, you feel demeaned.
Howell Raines was a brilliant editorial page editor, but his virtues became his vices, and his greatest vice was the vice of hubris, the vice of not listening. What does it take to be a good journalist? A reasonably intelligent person to be able to sort things out, a clear writer so that people can understand what it is that they've sorted out, and a reasonably careful person so that the facts are correct.
More important than all of those qualities is humility, which allows you to ask questions and to listen to the answers. We're not like the people who appear on cable television to bloviate. Sometimes I have the television on, and wonder, "What do these people do all day?" They seem to be sitting and waiting to be called to go on television to just announce opinions.
You watch a show like Capital Gang. They'll have the Speaker of the House or the Senate minority or majority leader on there with the four panelists, and they treat the guest as an accessory: "We'll get to you in a second. We have our opinions to express."
In my chapter "Fee Speech," I interview people like Chris Matthewsand forty or so other of these bloviators and ask them the same question: "What are your lecture fees and what organizations have you spoken to?" It's quite hilarious, because the same people who complain about politicians act exactly like the politicians they complain about, saying, "No comment." It was fun to put them on the spot.
I have another chapter about Don Imuscalled "The Don," describing how people come on his show trying to promote their books, and then suddenly they're being asked to make donations to the Imus Ranch, and then suddenly Imus seems very pleased and starts promoting their books. It's all a terrible game that undermines the humility we need to do our job.
4) Bias. The debate is skewed wrong when we talk about bias. If you listen to Fox News, they say there's a liberal bias that dominates. If you read The Nation, they'll say the bias that dominates is a conservative bias: Wall Street Journaleditorial page, Fox News.
There is such a thing as a liberal bias. There is such a thing as a conservative bias. But the dominant bias is a market bias. It's a bias in favor of conflict, of "gotcha" journalism, of process-polling stories, of ratings and circulation. And this bias flows naturally from the business entities that own these journalistic institutions. They're doing what the wasp does: "That's what I do."
The most interesting thing I discovered when writing the Bush piece for the New Yorker was that his staff, curiously, made the same analysis of what's wrong with the press as, say, The Nation or Al Franken. They argued that it's a market-driven bias; the press are people who are not interested in substance. It's interesting that the right and left wings would come together in this analysis.
What's the solution? I don't have one. As journalists, we have to communicate with the businesspeople who own our journalistic institutions, and try to quantify ratings, circulation and profit margin. Journalism is not easily quantifiable.
We have to talk about credibility. If you were CBS, you can have a private conversation with your corporate parents at Viacom and ask, "What damage do we do to our credibility or our brand by this controversy?" Don't you think we hurt it? And don't you think USA Today is thinking after the scandal they're going through with one of their star reporters who made up things, that this has harmed the brand and the credibility? And don't you think the Staples Center at the L.A. Times, the story I already mentioned, harmed their brand?
Somehow we have to figure out ways to quantify. When they say, "We want you to double your profit margin," we have to come back and say, "Fine, but that means no investigative stories; that means closing our state capital bureau, because we can't afford it. Which option would you prefer?" Somehow we've got to do a better job of crossing this cultural divide and communicating to the people who own us.
It's easier at places like the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal, where you have publishers who share your value system. It's much harder at places like CBS, ABC, Gannett and the 1,200 radio stations owned by Clear Channel Communications.
There are reasons for me to be optimistic. The Internet is one of them; technology is another. The ability of writers to self-publish because of the Internet, because of technology is very exciting. Technology is opening up governments around the world. But I've given you a speech that dwelled more on the reasons for pessimism in my business.
So how do I come out? I come out, as Dr. Shulman did, with a bumper sticker that would say, "Accept Complexity" and with one of my favorite quotations, from F. Scott Fitzgerald, that the mark of an intelligent person is someone who has the ability to keep two or more disparate thoughts in mind at the same time and still function. That's me.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION:I have an observation about your story of the wasp and the bullfrog, which is in fact an ancient Indian story. In the original, the story is worse, because the bullfrog says to the wasp, "If you take me across, you'll sting me and we'll both drown."
And the wasp says, "Don't be silly. I'm a rational being. Why would I want to drown? I want to get to the other side." And it's halfway across the river that he stings the bullfrog, and while they're drowning he says to the bullfrog, "Can't help it, I'm a wasp."
So are the wasps drowning the news business?
How do we manage to interest this bottom-line-obsessed media with the need to cover stories about world affairs? Do you see any hope for a reversal in the 78 percent decline in the last twenty years in the number of minutes afforded international affairs on network news?
KEN AULETTA:One key to getting the American public animated on international affairs—and our bosses, the editors, as well as their bosses, the owners—is that somehow it has to be perceived as news you can use, vital to the interests of the reader or viewer.
Certainly for a period of time after 9/11, the news weeklies were doing fewer Julia Roberts and more Islam covers, which was a good thing. But somehow we must keep the pressure on for international coverage.
There is more interest in international affairs today than there was, but we are dealing with a historical cultural problem in America. Those two oceans on either side of us gave us a sense of immunity from the world.
It's very different when you read the press when you travel, and realize that the amount of coverage of world affairs is so much greater.
QUESTION: I suspect that many of the people in the audience tune in to a form of American media that you didn't mention, and that's National Public Radio. In other major English-speaking countries, there's an Australian Broadcasting Corporation or a Canadian Broadcasting or a BBC, a non-profit media that offsets commercial media.
Your talk was entirely devoted to the profit-seeking part of the American media industry, and I would welcome your comments on that.
KEN AULETTA:Good point. People could go on the Internet and get all these choices, so you're not hemmed in by the print or broadcast choices before you, which is cause for optimism.
But America has a different news tradition, which the rest of the world is tending to copy now: public-sector media is not prized as much here as elsewhere. News tends to be a private-enterprise effort.
The deregulatory climate that has spread around the world means that the effort to privatize and to get even more commercial voices continues.
One of the questions that has come up here and may well come back to the fore, is about what one does with the digital-spectrum space that has been gifted to local stations around the country. Because of digital technology, each station could go from owning one station to owning six because the space taken up by your signal is broader in the digital world.
Do you give it to the local profit-making stations or do you require, if you give it to them, that they give you back something in return because it's public airways?
The Gore Commissionhad hearings around the country and explored this very question. One of the proposals made by some of the businessmen on the Commission was that you give some of the money to public broadcasting, be it radio or television, so that they will not be under the profit pressures and financial pressures that they are today.
That is something that I hope will make a comeback.
And if you buy my argument on bias, one of the reasons you have that bias for conflict is commercial pressure, and one of the reasons why many people may have listened to NPR before they came is because you don't have that same frenzied approach. You feel as if the journalists there are providing you, the listener, with information that they think you need for functioning as a citizen of a democracy.
QUESTION:Could you comment further about your view of the integrity of the American journalistic community in covering Iraq? There's been a view that the Bush administration successfully intimidated much of the journalistic community, limiting its coverage of Iraq so that, for example, most Americans seem to think that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11; indeed, they were loaded with weapons of mass destruction; and that somehow this issue of limited information access pushed the media back.
Has the journalistic community met its responsibilities to the American public in covering Iraq?
KEN AULETTA:I do not think the journalistic community has met its responsibilities.
I am not one who tends to believe in conspiracies. Having once in another life served in government and worked in politics, I think that panic and accident and incompetence often account for decisions that journalists think of as conspiracies. People are not smart enough to successfully prosecute conspiracies in most cases.
Where the press failed in Iraq is not the embedded program. I could support the idea of 600 reporters embedded with troops, because part of our job is to see complexity and to see people in non-stick-figure ways, to see real people, and the opportunity to see war and soldiers. But you could make an argument that they didn't do a good job; they should have shown some of the blood and victims of a war because that's reality, and part of our job is to convey reality. The press was not co-opted consciously. Where they failed was in measuring and weighing the claims that Colin Powell made at the UN, that Cheney made about the connection between al-Qaeda and Baghdad, that Bush made about uranium from Africa.
What we too often do in journalism is treat what we cover as a ping-pong match, and we just report: "He hit [ping!]; he hit back [pong!]." And that's not our job. Our job is try as best as we can, as imperfectly as we can, to sort out what's happening.
We did not sort out the truth of the claims made by the Bush administration about weapons of mass destruction. We could have done a much better job. I don't think that any White House reporter with the benefit of hindsight would disagree with what I've just said. The job of journalism is to sort out what happened, without getting caught up in patriotic fervor, without doing what Fox News and the New York Postdid, which was, instead of explaining France's position, dubbing it "the axis of weasel."
QUESTION:For a small group of broadcasting programs, there still seems to be no movement toward looking for quality rather than quantity in the numbers that make sense to business.
For example, you pointed out the importance of depth and complexity. Why hasn't there been a small but limited movement to come up with a few programs that deal in a different way with critical issues for a specific population that would even satisfy some substantial advertisers? It shouldn't be biased, but there's a quality market.
KEN AULETTA: One of the things that technology is affording us is narrowcasting. My digital cable box has probably 500 channels. If I'm interested in a particular area, I can find something. And with satellite radio coming, narrowcasting, you'll be able to get any ratio station in the world. The price you pay is that it is not information shared by everyone. When you had 95 percent of the public watching the evening news on three networks, they were sharing a common source of information. When you had 76 percent of the people watching the mini-series "Roots" in 1977—and then the next day talking at the water cooler about race relations—it was shared information.
If you're intellectually honest, you must acknowledge that something philosopher John Deweysaid is sometimes right: when asked about the American public, he said, "Ah, the great beast." Sometimes the public is the great beast. We lionize the public and we blame the newscasters or the journalists; but the public has a responsibility, too, in all of this.
QUESTION:How does the economics of journalism and the whole broad publishing industry that you're talking about affect the story and the take on the story? I'm specifically very interested in the Middle East. When you move into the Middle East, whether the greater Arab world or the Palestinian Authority, there's censorship. Most of the people who run the stories are stringers, and there's no chance of getting a true, balanced story.
This is part of the reason why Israel gets such bad press, and it has very negative implications all the way around. I would be very interested in your comments on the economics of influencing the actual story.
KEN AULETTA: Let's, as the economists would say, disaggregate. Israel does get a bad press worldwide. It does not get a bad press in the United States. In fact, you can make an argument that they get too good a press. Certainly that has been a criticism, that the Sharon government does not get treated as as hard right as it is and doesn't get criticized as much as it might for bulking up the settlements. If you look at the Arab press—al-Jazeera, for example—clearly your analysis is correct, and it concerns this government and others: how do you get better coverage and get away from the kind of agitprop coverage that tends to exist in that medium? That's a tough problem.
The Bush administration's answer to that is that what we're doing in Iraq by regime change will spill over and have an effect on the journalism as well, and they're setting up their al-Jazeera-type network that Margaret Tutwilerruns out of the State Department. When I'm traveling, the coverage of Israel in much of the rest of the world tends to be more negative than not, and is not always balanced.
How do you change that? Is that because of business pressures? I don't think so. If you look at the London papers, Rupert Murdoch, who owns four London papers, is pro-Israeli as is Conrad Black, who owns one London newspaper, not to mention papers in Jerusalem and elsewhere. So it is not so much economically driven as driven by many other factors?culture, bias, political interests, foreign policy interests, and greater sympathy for the Arab world.
KEN AULETTA:The jury's still out. Bush is clearly not happy. He has very skillfully responded so far; he has taken the high road personally: "Paul O'Neill was a fine Secretary of Treasury," and had nothing to say about the book. His press secretary said, "We don't do book reviews at the White House." However, his Treasury Department has called for an investigation of O'Neill.
One of your questions dovetails with the point about the conflict-oriented press. Will the press choose to focus on the substance of the claims that O'Neill is making about an incurious President, a President who had a secret plan all along to invade Iraq? Or will it choose to focus on O'Neill's bitterness? Is this just a jilted employee's response? Did he give away national security documents to Ron Susskind?
The Bush people analyze the polls, which show a 50-50 split as to whether the public agrees with their policies. But a larger majority of people like the president personally, not just like him but think he's a man of conviction, a man of strength, a man who knows what he wants to do.
And so Mark McKinnon, Bush's chief media strategist, says, "We have to show the President's soul. People have to see the man." If stories like that undermine the man, then they undermine his greatest strength with the public. And the other piece of that question is who is the Democratic nominee, and does he become the issue or does Bush become the issue? Soon we will see the answer unfold.
Howard Dean's foreign policy advisor, Ivo Daalder, in his book, America Unbound, said, "Make no mistake about it: Bush is in command here." And Tom Daschle in his book Like No Other Timesays that George Bush made it clear to him, "I am in command at the White House and I intend to stay that way."
So I'm not sure that O'Neill's recollection of anything, since he was not a major player in that administration—and they found from the very beginning that he was a mistake as an appointment as Secretary of the Treasury—will have much impact unless the press chooses to use it.
Back in 1961, you couldn't do very much to harm the financial aspects of a newspaper or certainly a radio station. The news department was always fighting the advertising department, the sales department, for personnel, for finances, because there was a profit margin to be maintained.
But there was also the idea that you don't go after certain people in the community. And as a broadcast journalist, you certainly don't make a major personality of yourself, so that if you're interviewing the mayor, he is the star.
The other aspect is trust. If I were interviewing the mayor, the governor, or a cabinet official, it wasn't up to me, if he or she allowed me into the office and then happened to take a phone call, to also report on the nature or contents of that call. There was a certain element of discretion.
During the Kennedy administration there were many unreported indiscretions at the White House. When did this culture change? When did it go from what we were talking about in the early 1960s to what we're doing today, into the "gotcha" journalism that has little depth and a great deal of talk?
KEN AULETTA:I can't pinpoint when it changed, but clearly things like People magazine had an impact because it placed a premium on reporting on personalities and becoming a personality. Television did, too.
When Roone Arledge allowed Sam Donaldson to go from being White House correspondent for ABC to a commentator on the Brinkley showon Sunday mornings, he was crossing a divide he should not have crossed, in allowing a reporter to cloud his mission. Are reporters in the business of asking questions or answering them? Sam was asking questions by day, and then by Sunday he was answering them. That was a mistake.
All of this conspires to get away from the humility a journalist needs to be armed with to do their job. I don't know how you put that genie back in the bottle, but one of the things you try to do is shame people, which is why you need more press criticism, why the New York Timesneeds an ombudsman. The media must be held accountable, just as we're supposed to hold politicians or public figures accountable.
QUESTION:In the old days we would take a reporter, put him on a camel, send him out in the desert in Yemen and he would spend a week and come back with a story. Today the change is immediacy and speed.
What role do you think that's playing on all sides—not only for the people in the business, because of their quarterly reports and the bottom line, but also for journalists?
KEN AULETTA:The problem is that the form of journalism ?give me a headline, give me a lead, give me the basic facts, and do it in 500 words—or fewer in the case of a television report—shapes the content of journalism.
Somehow we must find a way to allow our journalists to have more time to report their stories. You'll never convey the complexity of the issues you're dealing with at the UN or those involved in healthcare, weapons of mass destruction, or whatever the issue unless you have enough time and space.
I have the luxury of time at the New Yorker. People ask, "Why do people talk?" Because I have time to wear them down. You don't just call up and say, "I'd like to come into the White House and talk to you." There are probably twenty phone calls involved, along with emails—you can't send letters to the White House as they don't open them for two months because of the germ scare.
People will talk if they're worried about their opponents or adversaries talking, but they will also talk if they feel that the journalist is interested in getting at the truth.
When the Bush or Clinton or Carter or Nixon people looked in reporters' eyes, they saw people who they thought wanted a headline, not people who wanted to understand what was going on. Journalists need to get that story in 500 words, get their headline, because they have to keep the machine going.
Editors must be persuaded—and they in turn have to persuade owners—that to have the credibility, to advance the brand we believe in, journalists have to be authoritative. And to be authoritative, we need time, and we need to be able to tell the complex truth.
I was on a task force at Columbia Journalism School last year that President Bollinger set up to discuss the future of journalism and how to teach it. He made a very bold decision to pick Nick Lemann, who made an even bolder decision to give up his Washington column at the New Yorker, where he did sparkling work, to become the dean.
One of the issues we were wrestling with is what is journalism: Is it meant to reflect the world or to change it? The decision was made to try to change it. Let's try and move slowly at first to a two-year journalism course to better prepare journalists for the profession they're in so that they won't ask some of the dumb, horserace kinds of questions. Only then can we begin to change the culture of journalism.