Book Reviews




Backstory: Inside the Business of the News

by Ken Auletta

Review by Richard Sheppard


Ken Auletta used to write a column for the New York Daily News that would annoy this reviewer to no end. It so happened some time back that he was moderating a panel at the New York Public Library on a media and technology topic, and following it this reviewer had a chance to meet him briefly. Reviewer: "Good day, Mr. Auletta, your Daily News column used to annoy me to no end over breakfast." Auletta, "oh really, why?" Ya got me pard! I was prepared to go zing the dude, but not as prepared as I should have been with specifics. I mumbled something and let him go on his way. But he was a nice enough guy for that, and over the years, he's written some interesting items on the media. He is today the media correspondent for New York magazine, a perch from which he can observe New York, the center of the media universe. (At the same event, this reviewer had a chance to engage Gerald Levin, at the time the CEO of Time-Warner and ask him if some of unflattering details in a book that was out about him at the time were true. He declined to answer.) 

Backstory is a collection of Auletta essays on the business side of news organizations and the tensions between business and journalistic agendas. He presents case studies such as how the New York Times replaced its editor, the tabloid wars between the New York Post and Daily News, and assorted inside stories on other media companies and how they balance the need to keep their news divisions "independent" and free of influence from the profit-seeking and -generating sides of the organizations. Auletta was granted significant access and interviews with many of the principles of the organizations he writes about, and this reporting goes a long way towards understanding how these powerful individuals play a large role in influencing American public opinion. Even a few years beyond this collection's 2003 publication, these essays offer some contemporary insight into many media personalities which still occupy high positions and command extensive coverage and speculation.