Ken Auletta

Ken Auletta on Loathing the Media

VTR Date: July 7, 1993

Journalist and cultural comentator Ken Auletta discusses dispositions toward the media.


Host: Richard Heffner
Guest: Ken Auletta
Title: “Ken Auletta on Loathing the Media”
VTR: 7/7/93

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And in my view my guest is one of the most perceptive, well-informed and profoundly intelligent critics writing about communications in America today. Three Blind Mice was journalist, commentator Ken Auletta’s massive and compelling analysis of the major networks. We discussed it here two years ago.

Since then I’ve stored up a number of his equally insightful articles about the media, print and electronic alike, and perhaps there’s no better place to begin today’s discussion than with his late 1992 “Esquire” essay on how the politicians and the public stop reading newspapers and listening to Sam Donaldson and learned to loathe the media.

So, first question for Ken Auletta. Is that true?

Auletta: I think they do loathe, by and large…I’m generalizing…but I think, by and large there is a fear and loathing of the press that public officials have. Some of that is deserved, some of it is not. What is deserved, and one of the points I made in that “Esquire” piece, is there has come to the business of journalism a, a…and, and television has something to do with it because it, it, it helps create this “gotcha” mentality which is “we need a bit, gimme a bit, give me, give me a quick…give me the headline, give me the lead, gimme the juice, gimme…we’ve got so much competition out there we’ve got to bust through it all”. So you’ve got a premium placed on people, personalities like Sam Donaldson on ABC who can shout louder than a jet airplane. And, and, and the President cannot ignore his loud voice. And, and, and people love the kinda tough guy pose and swagger of a Donaldson, but he has many imitators, and people who do the same thing. But what you get, or sometimes you get terrific questions, asked of politicians who don’t want…wish to answer them. Ah, and that’s too bad because the press is doing its job. But too often, too often you get the, the prosecutorial pose with a dumb question designed not to elicit information, but to attract a headline. And I think that increasingly has, has, has come to be a common practice in the business of journalism. And, and a troubling practice and is one of the reasons why politicians feel this loathing because they don’t want to play the game of “got you” with the press, ‘cause they don’t want to get caught.

Heffner: Well, you talk about a prosecutorial role, and then dumb questions. How do you feel about the prosecutorial posture and then smart questions?

Auletta: Well, it, it depends on what you mean by the “prosecutorial posture”. I believe if, if you mean by that…that a journalist’s position is to be, keep an arm’s length relationship with the people he or she reports on, and to, and to sometimes…where necessary act like an adversary, but to certainly always remember when I’m reporting on you that I’m not concerned about you as my audience. I’m concerned about the people that will read me. If you keep that in mind…who is our audience, we’re not writing for the politicians or the public figures we cover, but we’re writing for the readers out there, or reporting for the viewers out there…then we don’t get in trouble because then we’ll keep the distance. So I think that’s very useful…if by, if by prosecutorial pose you mean that…detached, keep a distance, often times adversarial relationship…certainly in the sense that, that we don’t necessarily have the same interests.

Heffner: Yeah, but wait a minute, ken, prosecutors prosecute…what should journalists do?

Auletta: They…if you, if you mean should you prosecute the truth and the search for the truth…absolutely. What is the truth? I…but, but if it means…if by that you mean “I’m going to set myself up as an equal to the President, or a Congressman I’m covering, and I’m going to ask some wise cracking question that makes me look good, but is not designed to elicit information”. I don’t…I think we do too much of that and, and, and that bothers me because basically what we’re doing is substitution a pose for reporting. Let me give you some “for instances” of what I mean, so we’re not talking abstractly…

Heffner: Wait a minute…”substituting a pose for reporting”…

Auletta: Yeah…

Heffner: …okay.

Auletta: If, if, if you watched “Dateline NBC” in the last moth of Bush’s Presidency, the Storm Phillips, I believe his name, was the anchor and he had an interview at the White House with the President of the United States, and there was a story that day in the New York Post which was based on a footnote in a book that alleged that George Bush may have had an affair with someone by the name…first name of “Jennifer”, which happened to be the first name of a woman that allegedly in the Winter…Bill Clinton…it came out that he had once had an affair with allegedly. Well, Storm Phillips did no reporting on this question at all. He just relied on, on a story in the New York Post which ws based on a footnote in a book…footnote…the reporter didn’t believe in it enough to even lead with it in, in the book…they were a 600 page book…but here Strom Phillips is taking on the prosecutorial pose, sitting across from the President and asking him what he thinks is the tough, hard-ball journalistic question…”Have you now or have you ever”…well there may be some reasons to ask that question of a public official…that is to say if you have, if you have a mistress on the public payroll, I think we have a right to ask about that…that’s an abuse of power. If you’re drunk on the job, we have a right to ask about that. But we don’t have a right to ask questions like that, or questions as Strom Phillips asked unless we’ve done some reporting…

Heffner: I mean we…

Auletta: …because otherwise we’re like Joe McCarthy.

Heffner: …yeah, but then wait a minute…suppose the person in question does his digging, does his research or her research, and then comes up and asks the same question. Why is that question any better?

Auletta: Well, it’s not…because…my standard would be, and I think this is one of the things that’s happened to journalism…we’ve gone away from this standard, and I think we get in trouble when we do…the, the, the, the only excuse to ask a question about a public official’s private life is if it affects the public performance. Otherwise it should remain private. We should keep that door closed. That is to say even if Storm Phillips had reported that, that …and had found the Ambassador who was the source, who was by the way, dead by this time…was the alleged source of this footnote in the book…and the Ambassador didn’t even witness anything…He just…the President…the former President…I mean the future President…used the room and he just assumed that it was…he was going to have a dalliance with this Jennifer, but he didn’t know that. But if you’d done reporting, and, and, and you…and the Ambassador made this allegation I wouldn’t ask the question. I would still argue you should not ask the question unless somehow Bush, who was then Vice President had abused his public trust. Now, it gets into some gray areas, sometimes. For instances, take Gary Hart. Gary Hart when he was exposed in 1987, which was the year before he was to run in the Presidential campaign of ’88, that he was having an affair with Donna Rice. Gary Hart had, had…that, that rumor had, had clung to Hart in journalistic circles and in political circles…for years there had been rumors that he had been having dalliances. And he always denied it. And then in the middle…when he’s an announced candidate…he announced early…it was 1987…he’s an announced candidate and the Miami News found out in fact he was at the home of this Donna Rice, and carrying on pretty blatant, what appeared to be a blatant affair. The question then becomes one of his judgment. Here’s a man running for President of the United States. If he doesn’t have enough judgment and more important, discipline to stop himself from indulging in these kinds of activities when he’s running fro President, what kind of president is he going to be? That raises a very interesting public policy question. But I think what we’ve done in journalism too often when we write about private lives is we, we, we, we excuse everything. We put a badge on him, we say now “We’re the character cop”, we have a right to, to look under the bed sheets because we need to know about a public officials’ character. Well, is that the test of a public official’s character? It seems to me there’s a lot of things on the public record that would tell you about that character…who do they raise money from, how do they get it, what’s their public policy position on an assortment of issues that matter to you or don’t matter to you?

Heffner: So you distinguish between pursuits into the private lives of politicians, between those areas in which private becomes public really, by definition…impact upon a person’s performance and those that really have nothing to do with his or her public performance. Okay. Question: Given what is happening to the media today, in terms, not of what we’re talking about here, but in a larger sense, the competitive nature of mass media in almost the 20th century, what chance is there that this loathing the media will not be exacerbated…not be fed more and more?

Auletta: Well, I think it will be. Another reason why we should not slide down the slippery slope of becoming character cops, of, of, of, of straying from the principle “does is affect their public performance”, and if it doesn’t, we’re not going to report it. Another reason not to do that is because the more we do that, the more press will be held in bad odor, and the less support we will have from the public. We need public support to do our job because basically, essentially what we do…we are the First Amendment representatives of the public…we’re, we’re…that’s what we’re supposed to be. We’re supposed to represent the public in the interest of the firs Amendment. Now I don’t say that cloaking myself in the First Amendment, and righteously. But that’s essentially what we do. We have the freedom to report and write and, and say what we wish. And that’s a responsibility, as well as a freedom, and we have to act our responsibly. If we don’t, as I think often we have not, we get…when we’ve become character cops, or when we pose as prosecutors, I think we undermine the public support we need to remain free.

Heffner: But when we put the crystal ball right here in the middle of this table, and you look into it, and I ask you what do you, as a journalist see in these terms, what do you see?

Auletta: I see that the, the, the growth and the proliferation of many forms of new media, meaning new forms of competition, will put more pressure on the media to do what we increasingly are doing, which is bad, which is act in a mindless way. I think the great problem in the media…if you say well, what is your four point reform package to make the media better, or, or…I mean I could tell you I wish we covered government more…I could tell you sometimes in Washington coverage I wish we were more adversarial, but in the better way by covering government…what these people do as opposed to how they look, or the public relations packaged stuff. I mean for people who say Bill Clinton’s doing better because he has a better public relations operation now is silly. Better be looking…how’s his government functioning…or is it…is it better or not? And that’s what we ought to write about. We ought not write about, we ought not declare Clinton’s Presidency over after the first inning, as we did, for instance, in, in May…generally speaking the media did. But I think what has happened is that the, the bifurcation of the media and the many new forms of competition creates more pressure for that sensational headline and that hype story. And, and because everything is happening so fast, and deadlines are coming quicker and quicker, particularly electronic deadlines, you have less time for thought, and I think the great enemy of journalism is mindlessness. I think, I think the great enemy is a lack of time. And, and, and when you have a built in lack of time, that every day you’ve got a new product to put out, a new deadline…a new headline to write, a new story…and then everything is telescoped. We’ve got to come up with multiple stories in one day, and it’s not in one, it’s within hours. It just places a premium on that sharp headline, that thoughtless headline. And, and that sensation headline and that scares me. So I think in that sense, I’m, I’m more pessimistic than optimistic about the future.

Heffner: I don’t want you to be scared. I want you to feel better about your profession. What do you think can be done to enable you to look at it and the way it’s functioning and to feel better about its response to its obligations?

Auletta: I think I, I, I think all of us operate in tribal societies of some kind or other. Journalism is a tribe. Ah, and in every tribe there’s peer pressure. I think the peer pressure in our tribe, the journalistic tribe is a peer pressure that places a premium on the sharp headline, the “gotcha”, the game of “gotcha”…

Heffner: MmmHmm.

Auletta: …and I think we’ve got to change that peer pressure.

Heffner: How do you do that?

Auletta: I think you need editors who stand up and say, “This is a piece of crap. Don’t do this. Why, why are you chasing this? Why are you imitating Sam Donaldson? That’s not…I want you to imitate Bill Moyers”.

Heffner: Are you suggesting that it is the reporter-guy, or girl, who is…who has to be told by the editor, or is it the editor who is saying “Go out and get another damn story because Sam Donaldson will wipe our faces”…

Auletta: I, I think…I, I wasn’t finished, because it’s more than that. It’s also, you need press criticism. As you, as you have and travel societies, one of the great disciplining mechanisms is the, is the, is the tool of shame. People don’t do things because they’re ashamed…they’re afraid they’ll get shamed. It’s not that they’re going to get punished, in terms of the hand slap, sent to prison, you k now…killed, it’s that they’re going to be ostracized. They’re going to be made to look like a fool. Well, if we had more press criticism, for instance, reporters and editors would behave more responsibly because they’d be afraid of being shamed. I think it’s really necessary, and it’s true…I mean I have seen reporters who, unlike politicians, are not used to being criticized, I mean, and they get very defensive and they often over-react to any criticism. I mean when the Soho Weekly News was published and Jane Peretz was their media critic, and she was a wonderful media critic, she’s now a New York Times foreign correspondent, and Jane Peretz would write…I remember…I forget who, who the reporter was, but it was a major reporter and editor, she wrote…she chastised them, slapped them on the wrist for something they had done. Well, they went ballistic. This is a publication with maybe 6,000, 7,000 circulation at the time…it was the seventies. And here the editor…it was one of the editors of The New York Times, went ballistic over that. That editor that will never make that same mistake, I promise you. Because the power of shame was, was in operation because this editor felt like the whole world had been exposed to his mistake.

Heffner: Well, one certainly in our times…one of the sources of “for shame”, not “go to jail”, was the National News Council…did you support it? Would you support it?

Auletta: Yeah, I, I would. I think the…an idea of…I think the National News Council was a good idea, and they had good people involved in it, including a wonderful Executive Director who had been…Abe Raskin…who had been a sensational correspondent for The New York Times for many, many years. The New York Times among others, helped kill the idea of the National…

Heffner: I know…

Auletta: …New Council because they felt that they…they feel that they are their own ombudsmen, that they don’t need an outside watchdog and, and there are dangers. I mean if you go down to Washington and you look at that organization that Reed Irvine represents…to my way of thinking…I’m not saying they don’t, sometimes, do valuable work, but it’s basically an ideologically based…you don’t trust…I don’t, as a citizen, as a journalist, trust their fairness, that they are non-biased. I don’t…they are criticizing the press for having a liberal agenda, and yet they have a Right Wing agenda. So I don’t…I don’t trust them, but if, if you can find an organization like the National News Council that doesn’t have an agenda, that is really balanced and, and, and, and implacable foe of, of shading and of, of dishonest reporting, or, or mistake prone reporting, or prosecutorial poses or mindlessness, great, and I would support it. I think…you know, if, if the lesson of our Founding Fathers is that you need checks and balances, which is one of the reasons they split our government into three parts, then certainly you need checks and balances on the press. But you don’t want a government check on the press…you want a voluntary check on the press, including citizens.

Heffner: Okay, but you make the point that we had one, and in its years it ultimately was scuttled.

Auletta: So you keep on trying to do it. And you, and you do different things. You encourage more journalistic publications, more journalistic criticism. You encourage newspapers and, and television to have an…have an ombudsman, say as The Washington Post has an ombudsman. You have…entourage television to have letters to the editor as “60 Minutes”…for a brief moment does. Yom just encourage ways of bringing to, to the press some form of check and balance.

Heffner: Has there been anything since…anything major since the late Don Hollenbeck’s efforts at CBS to look at the press and be critical of it? Something on a major scale. Nothing that I can think of.

Auletta: No, you, you know you had…on PBS you had Hodding Carter’s…

Heffner: Right.

Auletta: …”Inside Edition”, I think it was called. Which did that and did it very well, and, and that’s off the air for a while. But you know today they’re talking about a new interest in television in books and shows on books. Maybe there’ll be a new interest in shows on the, on the media. We need it. We need much more media criticism. And that’s the way to do it, which doesn’t invite questions about censorship or usurpation of the First Amendment rights. We just need more…we need more shame.

Heffner: Do you think that “shame, shame on you”…

Auletta: Ah, that I don’t like actually…I, I mean, of course…

Heffner: …it’s not toward the press…

Auletta: …no, but that…not there actually is a show on WCBS-TV…

Heffner: I know.

Auletta: …which actually a good reporter does it, and it’s called “Shame, Shame on You”, and they have a little…the, the danger with that to me…I mean I know it’s very popular with viewers because it’s, it’s jazzy and it’s simple and stuff…the danger with that is that it becomes hype, and, and, and, unfair, because you want to catch someone, you know.

Heffner: But you know, talking about “catching”, I just wondered how you feel, as a long time journalist, and you’ve commented on journalism…how do you feel about these new formats, and this new poetic license, or journalistic license…to quote where there is…

Auletta: You mean Joe McInnis?

Heffner: I mean Joe McInnis…

Auletta: “Dateline”…

Heffner: …I mean Janet Malcolm…I mean all of those places where we seem to be saying, “Well somebody to me, ws really saying this…quote…quote”.

Auletta: Yeah, I mean it goes back to the point I was trying to make before about keeping to a standard, the standard being “don’t write about private lives unless it affects public performance”. That’s key. And the standard is…don’t report something that someone said unless you know they say it. Don’t report that someone thought something in a book, or a piece in a magazine, unless they’ve said it. Don’t take a quote that you got at Chez Panissc, and put it….as Janet Malcolm did…and, and apply it to some person saying it somewhere else. Don’t…stick by rules. Because if you don’t stick by rules, you have nothing to guide you, and you get into trouble, and you lose your public credibility that you desperately need in order to continue to represent the First Amendment.

Heffner: Now, Ken, let me ask you…how much of contemporary journalism would you dry up, literally, if that approach were applied?

Auletta: I think that most journalists, I’m generalizing, and…but I think most journalists that I know get up and think that they’re doing a public calling every day. I don’t think most of them are cheats. I don’t think most of them set out to distort…

Heffner: That isn’t what I mean…I don‘t mean that they set out, but that they find, they feel, they, they, they are not uncomfortable with presenting as it would seem rather than as they know for a fact it is.

Auletta: I think what Joe McInnis did in his new book on Ted Kennedy coming out in August, I guess, is something that most writers of books won’t do. I, I, I think he’s aberrational. I don’t think that’s normal. I don’t think that’s common what he did. And I think that…that is not to say that there is not more of that kind of thing going on today than went on 10 or 20 years ago. I think there is.

Heffner: What is docu-drama, if it isn’t that?

Auletta: It…

Heffner: Or “faction”.

Auletta: …bothers the hell out of me…frankly, I, I don’t understand it. When I saw HBO’s version of “Barbarians at the Gate”, which is based on, on a scrupulously reported book by Brian Burrows and John Helyar, you look at that…they use real names in the movie version of “Barbarians at the Gate”, and they create…create dialogue in that. So they have Henry Kravis, and Teddy Forstmann, and all these people, none of whom are my friends, by the way, so I’m not…I don’t have a private agenda in saying this…but I’m sitting in the movie theater watching this movie and I’m saying, “My God, they got Jim Robinson and his wife, Linda Robinson having conversations at their homes”…which make them look like fools, by the way, and dressing up like fools…and things that they never said, there’s no proof that they ever said that, or that they ever…that Teddy Forstmann ever wore an Indian outfit just in costume party, as they show him in that. And I say, “Why don’t they have a right, legally, to sue for invasion of privacy?”

Heffner: But they don’t.

Auletta: I’m not sure…you know there’s a famous…I wrote a column about this…I went back to a Warren Spahn case…it was in the early ‘70s…

Heffner: Baseball?

Auletta: Warren Spahn was a great pitcher, and someone wrote a novel that used…the main character was Warren Spahn…the former pitcher…who was also a war hero, and, and, and set it in the war, and, and later on and talked about Warren Spahn. It, it was fiction. He didn’t come off badly in the book of fiction, but he came off…and he sued them in a Midwest court, saying “You have…you have stolen my life…you don’t have a right to steal my name, and my life, and create a book”. He won that case. I don’t know why we are not in docu-drama stealing peoples’ lives. Even if they’re public figures, and why that’s not…the same principle couldn’t be applied.

Heffner: You know why…because your colleagues yell “First Amendment”.

Auletta: Oh, well, you know, people can yell “First Amendment”, but, but you know we are in a society where the First Amendment encourages people to dissent, and have different points of view. I believe in the First Amendment as fervently as someone who criticizes the position I’ve just taken, but it seems to me we ought to look further into this question because the notion of docu-dramas…it seems to me is one that’s very dangerous to the business of journalism. Because it’s basically saying there are no rules. We can do anything we want. It’s all situational ethics, and if we think it makes a better story, or as the head of HBO told me when I called him to ask him to justify this…”You know, it makes for more entertaining shows”. If we think we can do that, well, the people who pick up my columns in The New Yorker, or, or watch Dan Rather on CBS, or Tom Brokaw, or Peter Jennings, whatever, they’re going to say, at some point…it’s going to introduce the notion “Why should I believe them? How do I know they didn’t make it up for entertaining values?”

Heffner: Ken, there’s no question, as we reach the end of our program, people, as you suggest are loathing the media, and saying that now…not about you, but about lots of things that happen in the media…that’s why I’m glad you were here to join me today on THE OPEN MIND. Thanks, Ken Auletta.

Auletta: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about our program today, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.