Criticism of the U.S. press is enduring - and healthy

For nine decades The New Yorker has offered readable, informed newspaper criticism. Newspapers have changed in many ways, notably in becoming units of vast, diverse conglomerates, but the current media critic, Ken Auletta, often finds himself complaining about some of the same shortcomings that his predecessors did - for instance, conflicts of interest.

Auletta's column is "Annals of Communication." A just-published collection of those, plus two non-New Yorker pieces, is Backstory: Inside the Business of News (Penguin, 296 pages, $24.95).


The New Yorker's press criticism used to be titled "The Wayward Press." It was written by Robert Benchley in the '20s and '30s and mostly by A.J. Liebling from the '30s into the '60s, when it was discontinued, except for a few staff resuscitations in the late 1990s. But by then Auletta's "Annals," which began in 1992, owned the franchise.

Auletta has a broader horizon and a different style from Benchley, the humorist, drama critic and movie comedian; and from Liebling, a journalist best known for commenting on newspapers, food and boxing. (Three collections of Liebling's press criticism have been published: The Wayward Pressman, Mink and Red Herring and The Press. You can find them in some used book stores and good libraries. They wear well.)


Benchley and Liebling focused on New York City's papers. In and out of The New Yorker, Auletta has taken on newspapers coast to coast, network and cable television, movie studios, book publishers, the Internet, AOL, Microsoft. Three previous books dealing with those entities preceded Backstory, which is primarily a newspaper book: World War 3.0: Microsoft and Its Enemies; The Highwaymen: Warriors of the Information Superhighway; and Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way.

Auletta is concerned about corporations that own several or all of the above enterprises. His heart is in journalism more than "communications." It breaks his heart to see how such conglomerates are changing the culture and business philosophy of their newspapers.

Many newspapers owned by those entities, he charges, are being told that they must (1) show the profit margins that the other components do, which good newspapers have not historically achieved; and (2) work with those other components to enhance their profits, too, even at the sake of compromising their journalistic news judgments.

For example, in the bidding war for exclusive access to Pvt. Jessica Lynch when she came home from Iraq, media giants promised packages of book deals, radio and television appearances, a movie and, apparently, in at least one case, the news columns of newspapers.

Newspaper editors and writers are not supposed to be swayed by advertising and business considerations. Most publishers know this and don't try to sway them, but not all. Not always.

Auletta wrote about the Los Angeles Times and Times Mirror, the corporation that owned it and other newspapers, at the time (1997) including The Sun. He focused on the then-CEO of Times Mirror, Mark Willes, an economist with no publishing experience.

Willes pushed for profits-enhancing "synergy," and "break[ing] down the walls" between news and advertising at the Times. Auletta pointedly labeled the piece "Demolition Man." That was a triple-entendre. In addition to "walls," Willes demolished two newspapers, The Evening Sun and New York Newsday (poorly handled but justifiable, Auletta concedes), and then had his own job demolished after a Times newsroom uprising.

The subject of the equally archly titled "Synergy City" was the (Chicago) Tribune Company, which after the piece appeared (1998) bought Times Mirror.


Auletta wrote: "Tribune has become a prototype for the cutting-edge newspaper company of the future. Tribune's profit margins lap the industry. Unlike most newspaper companies, which are reliant on print, its nonnewspaper revenues account for more than half its profits."

That piece, published in the American Journalism Review, is in keeping with a Liebling tradition of criticizing the Tribune. A Liebling biographer labeled his comments on Tribune publisher-editor Robert McCormick "bilious sarcasm." Auletta's comments are temperate, and in this case included a grace note: "It is hard to argue that the Tribune is not better than it was [in McCormick's day]." In McCormick's day, it was not corporatism but the personalities, political views and ambitions of publishers like him and William Randolph Hearst that conflicted with objective reporting and fair commentary.

Like Liebling and Benchley, Auletta does not criticize just publishers. In one "Wayward Press," for instance, Benchley matched the newspaper accounts of 20 reporters who witnessed a dual execution. "They agreed that [the murderers] were dead but practically on no other point," he wrote gleefully.

Those days' low-paid reporters often got things wrong out of sloppiness, overwork, mediocre skills, too much competition. Today's often do so out of over-self-esteem and, often, suspect collateral rewards.

One Backstory chapter, "Fee Speech," is devoted to Auletta's asking reporters, most of whom are both print journalists and television talking heads, to reveal and defend their generous speaking fees from organizations that might be seeking influence as much as access to celebrity.

Many refused to answer him. Auletta believes that that confirms what politicians say: "They believe journalists have abandoned a healthy skepticism and replaced it with a cynical pose." He illustrates that cynicism in another piece, "Gotcha: Candidates versus Press."


What's the point of subjecting his fellow journalists to this sort of thing? In another section of the book, Auletta explains, "The acorn of good journalism is humility. ... Humility is required to use two of a journalist's irreplaceable tools: the curiosity to ask questions and the ability to listen to the answers. ... Criticism helps keep journalists - like politicians - humble."

He wrote that leading into his piece on The New York Times' 2003 scandal in which a reporter faked stories and was defended by the very unhumble executive editor, who was defended by the publisher - both of whom believed they were above making mistakes and having to answer to criticism.

Are critics of newspapers anti-press? Not Auletta, Benchley and Liebling. Their criticism shows fondness for newspapers.

Benchley once said he was "overjoyed to open the front door every morning and find the morning New York papers and the milk. The milk was delivered by mistake." (A legendary drinker, he died of cirrhosis.) Liebling wasn't often overjoyed, but he came close in a piece he wrote after a long strike shut down papers in New York in 1962-1963. After the fact, the Times allowed a staff writer to produce an 18-column story on the strike "without editing on grounds of policy, editorial omniscience, or even length." It was brutally honest about some Times executives.

Liebling praised the piece and concluded, "Everybody knows what one swallow doesn't make, but I am an incorrigible optimist about newspapers."

Auletta is a "corrigible pessimist." He sees things worsening, but he gives newspaper people advice that he must hope and probably expects will help to reverse that. Even in his harsh treatment of today's Times, he adds that its extensive, expensive coverage of 9/11 was admirable.


The same could be said of its Iraq war coverage. (And of The Sun's. Maybe all we need to keep newspapers doing the right thing is perpetual crisis.) The working stiffs in the trenches can't do it by themselves. The boss, as the saying goes, isn't always right, but he's always the boss. Liebling liked to quote "a wise American" (I think himself) that "without a school for publishers, no school of journalism can have meaning."

I am told that there is such a thing today. If so, Backstory ought to be on the required reading list.

Theo Lippman Jr. is a retired Sun editorial writer. He compiled, edited and wrote the introduction to A Gang of Pecksniffs: and Other Comments on Newspaper Publishers, Editors and Reporters by H.L. Mencken, pieces Mencken wrote from 1914 to 1948.