February 02, 2004

Ken Auletta on Objectivity vs. Fairness, and the Defensiveness of the Press

...at UCB JSchool 9am this morning in the Library. (Back after a long day, but I wanted to note these notes.) Ken Auletta is a lovely man. Sat next to him, and noted that with the pouring rain outside, he had the most beautiful pair of brown suede shoes, perfect and untouched.

A few points (all -'s are KA):


-News outlets will lose their brand if they lose their credibility. Ex: When Gannet says to their journalists, if you view a press conf online instead of attending, you can do two articles a day instead of one, and that's more productive, journalists have to figure out how to respond to these business interests to maintain their credibility, to maintain the brand, to maintain the value.

-It's bad when Gilligan says "I got it essentially right."

-Can't turn back the clock on narrow casting, and in fact transparency is key for journalism. Declare your ideology (news outlets), though journalists shouldn't have one. Not worried so much about bloggers so much as the European model, or the 19th century American model, where papers essentially worked for the parties. Though the new liberal radio has declared itself, rather not have that.

-Tech is not a tool of governments, in fact it can often be the tool that opens up or reveals.... Finds it thrilling that people like Bill Gates at MS are terrified of technologies like Linux, which Gates believes could ruin his biz model overnight.

-Bush views journalists and the press as a special interest, and Bush knows the press is unpopular. There have only been 9 press conferences this term. Bush, et al charge that the press is too often interested in the gotcha story, headlines, and there is merit to this argument, and so they can get away with this Left argument. But the real bias is not Left or Right, but rather an economic bias, where everything is ratings driven.

-The government has a role in helping police media. Murdock/Eisner/Sumner Redstone are terrified that India or China or the Govt of France will keep them out, or force certain kinds of public content.

Objectivity vs. Fairness

-(from Paul Grabowicz) Objectivity? What about this, is it part of the role for journalists? Or does it instead make for something where the journalists stand above everything?

-Objective is the wrong word. Rather, it's fairness. Objectivity is a false God. Instead we should strive for fairness and transparency.

-The press is too intrusive, but if you stick with fairness, as well as humility -- ask questions instead of providing answers -- there is good journalism. It's the vanity of journalists today, that go on talk shows and never say "I don't know" and then ask a question; instead they always have answers and people find that arrogant.

Transparency, Defensiveness and Humility

-Thinks it would be really great if Dan Okrent (Ombudsman at the NY Times) and Bill Keller should sit down every week and blog together.

Q (from me): is there a way to have conversation with your readers and still maintain journalistic integrity?

KA: that's the question! (but no one, including Clay Felker or Orville Schell provided an answer, though they looked around searching for something.) But he doesn't have time to do tons of email...

OS: there is no way Tom Brokaw can respond to 10k email.

-Is there a way to get away from arrogance? Hard. Yesterday, KA on CSPAN, and he said that, regarding media consolidation and the FCC, last June, the NRA, a right wing group, had joined with liberals in the fight. A caller said that KA was stereotyping about the NRA, and KA's first response was to get defensive, but then KA realized the guy was right. It's human nature to be defensive, but journalists need to start being transparent and allowing criticism.

Q: how come the NYTimes doesn't credit other outlets?

KA: that was yesterday's column by Okrent. Not a mistake by the Times, but rather not giving credit to other sources. And that's new.

I pointed out that Jeff Jarvis said that yesterday's column was the Okrent's first blog post, because it contained a link.

He mentioned his favorite inventions, including the Sony Digital Recorder because it makes his job so much easier, and he seemed delighted with the actual process of moving an interview from DR, via a memory stick to his computer. Nice talk. I hope the shoes made it through the storm on his way to the next event.

Suggestion for Conversations Between Those Formerly Known as Your Audience and Journalists

So while Ken Auletta and Orville Schell suggested it would be great and yet difficult for journalists (the example was Tom Brokaw) to truly converse with their audiences, I wonder if it might be possible to blog these conversations. Tom Brokaw could do a blog, not turn on comments, but rather link to constructive conversation on other blogs, as could other bloggers link to him. Inherent in blogging is a sense that, "this is my house" and so quality and reputation are up to each blogger, while other bloggers link to those that are useful or conversant in some way. It seems to me this conversation, which goes on every day in the blogsphere, transparently and in front of any viewer who wants to see it, might answer this question, while keeping Tom Brokow from having to answer thousands of email, comments or whatever.

Below is a recent CBS Marketwatch article on Auletta.

New Yorker's Auletta is in his prime
Commentary: He is the best at reporting on the media biz

By Jon Friedman, CBS.MarketWatch.com
Last Update: 12:01 AM ET Jan. 30, 2004

NEW YORK (CBS.MW) -- When I think of the qualities that separate the best journalists from the pack, curiosity and courage invariably top the list.

By my standards, the New Yorker's Ken Auletta, the premier chronicler of the media business, is in his prime. Auletta, 61, is the author of the critically praised "Backstory," a new collection of his articles about the media industry and his ninth book in all.

In every chapter - ranging from "The Howell Doctrine" and "New York's Tabloid Wars" to "Fox News: We Report, We Decide" - what comes across is Auletta's boundless desire to understand how the world works.

"He loves the process of discovery," says his wife Amanda Urban, who knows a few things about successful authors. She runs the book department at International Creative Management.

And as I discovered, no detail is too small for Auletta to ponder. When we met on Jan. 16 at the New Yorker offices, he saw my notepad and asked in his characteristically quiet but forceful way: "Why aren't you using a tape-recorder?"

Even seasoned journalists sometimes shrink from asking tough questions of powerful people. But Auletta isn't reluctant to put CEOs on the spot. In November 2002, I watched him sit on a stage at New York University and interview Dick Parsons, the chief executive officer of Time Warner (still known as AOL Time Warner at the time) (TWX: news, chart, profile), the biggest media company in the world.

It was an opportune time. The company's stock had been falling steadily because of the calamities at its America Online unit (the shares have gained 29 percent in the past year). The financial beating that longtime Time Warner employees' 401 (k) programs had been taking was regarded as something of a scandal inside the House That Luce Built.

Auletta courteously but doggedly pressed an uncomfortable Parsons to talk about the grim effect of the stock plunge. Finally, Parsons said he would advise his employees to "get over it." As blunt as the comment sounded, it was even more astonishing because of Parsons' reputation for being a good-humored CEO as well as a shrewd corporate politician.

Auletta said Parsons' answer surprised him "because he's such a skilled diplomat."

It was vintage Auletta. He is the rare journalist who can persuade subjects and sources to tell him interesting nuggets without resorting to what he regards as the bane of the media, the tabloid practice of "gotcha" journalism.

"In addition to being really good at listening, he has a kind of sympathetic manner that lures people into saying things they probably wish they hadn't," said Nora Ephron, the film director of such hits as "You've Got Mail," who worked with Auletta at New York magazine in the 1970s.

Work, work, work

So, what, then, is Auletta's secret?

"There's no secret," says David Remnick, the ever-astute editor of the New Yorker. "He works and he works and he works and he works."

Indeed, Auletta, a native of Brooklyn, has ferocious work habits. When he labors on a New Yorker piece, he creates an index that would impress a doctoral candidate, complete with stick 'em pads as well as alphabetized and numbered sets of notes. By the time he is finished researching a book, his research file may be 180-pages long - single-spaced! For a New Yorker piece: 50 pages.

"My wife tells me I'm anal," Auletta lamented with a weary grin, "and she is right."

For a profile of Time Warner in 2001, Auletta said, he turned in 35,000 words, which his editor trimmed to a tidy 13,000 words. No wonder when I asked Auletta what he hoped to improve on in his craft, he said he wanted to do a better job of writing descriptions of people and scenes -- and that he wished he could hand in shorter stories to his editors -- "maybe 25,000 words," he shrugged.

Urban suspects her husband -- who moved seamlessly from a career in politics to one in journalism -- may eventually ease into teaching as his next Everest.

For now, Auletta's lessons can be found in his work. He follows a few wise courses of action in interviews. He says he keeps his mouth shut and lets the subject do most of the talking, opens conversations gently by asking about the person's childhood, doesn't make deals with sources, laughs at their jokes and definitely doesn't suggest he will write an overly flattering "puff piece."

"I tell them that if I do my job properly, I can promise that there will be things that you won't like," he said. "As a journalist, your first obligation is to the reader."

Auletta has served as an inspiration for his fellow journalists, such as Timothy Noah, who writes Slate's excellent "Chatterbox" column.

Speaking about Auletta's fascinating book, "Greed and Glory on Wall Street," Noah said: "I have never gotten over what a special piece of journalism it was."

Lessons in humility

Instead of "Backstory," Auletta could easily have titled his new book, "Lessons in Humility."

Auletta respects humility, perhaps above all, in his subjects and fellow journalists. Likewise, when a CEO is haughty or shows signs of hubris, Auletta will show his disapproval.

That was evident when Auletta wrote, perhaps, his finest -- and most important -- piece of the past few years, a profile of Howell Raines. When Auletta encountered him in 2002, Raines was riding high as the top editor of the New York Times.

Raines had crafted the Times' strategy on Sept. 11, 2001 to "flood the zone" and cover the terrorist attack from every conceivable human, business and political angle. The Times won Pulitzer Prize recognition.

But Auletta showed in his subsequent profile, "The Howell Doctrine," that Raines was a flawed leader. He was sure of himself and didn't seem to communicate well with his staff. "His virtues became his vices," Auletta said.

Auletta's article proved to be remarkably prescient. In a stunning fall from grace, Raines resigned from the Times last year in the wake of the scandal involving Jayson Blair, the reporter who fabricated facts in many cases.

While it's hard to find fault with Auletta, I had begun to believe some years ago that he was too easy at times on his subjects -- particularly in a 1997 piece on Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire who is now the mayor of New York.

When I raised this point with Auletta, he frowned ever so slightly and said, "Maybe you're right."

Auletta's stories have also angered subjects.

"Bill Gates still doesn't talk to me," he said, referring to the Microsoft (MSFT: news, chart, profile) leader. Auletta criticized Gates' inflexible stance during the software giant's infamous antitrust battles with the U.S. government.

Auletta deftly peeled away -- like an onion -- what he viewed as personality shortcomings of Miramax's Harvey Weinstein, an accomplished moviemaker.

"Harvey hated that piece," Auletta said evenly. "I'd have been disappointed if he had liked it."

It wouldn't surprise me if Auletta writes soon about the nation's newsmagazines, which intrigue him.

"The newsweeklies have a problem -- the mail," he said. "How do they stay relevant? I don't understand the future of the newsweeklies. You often don't get until Wednesday and you can read them online."

Generally, Auletta is skeptical about the media's future. He frets about the global corporations, which systematically cut the quality in their holdings to squeeze higher profits. He worries that it will be harder for his peers to do their essential work.

"As journalists, we're truth-seekers," he said. "We follow the truth."

Posted by Mary Hodder at February 2, 2004 10:17 PM | TrackBack