E-mail Updates

Stay current on media deals, issues and trends. Enter your e-mail address below for FREE media headlines e-mailed to you each weekday morning.















Media People
In their own words

Ken Auletta: 'The Drive to Achieve Synergy Is Often Journalism's Poison'
The media columnist for The New Yorker says that "bigness is not necessarily better" in media, and 2003 is likely to bring "more bigness."

By Patrick Phillips
I Want Media, 12/19/02

Ken Auletta is the Annals of Communications columnist for The New Yorker magazine, for which he reports on many of the leading figures in media and communications. Auletta won the National Magazine Award for Profile Writing for his "definitive" portrait of Ted Turner in The New Yorker last year and is the author of several books about media.

Auletta spoke with I Want Media about a variety of current issues, such as the "colossal blunder" of the New York Times' Augusta National column controversy, AOL Time Warner's need for a "cultural change," and the FCC's possible "momentous" shakeup of media ownership rules.

I Want Media: The New York Times stirred talk with the revelation that its editors killed two columns that differed with the paper's editorial stance favoring women as members at Augusta National, the men-only Georgia golf club. What's your take on the controversy?

Ken Auletta: A terrible screw-up that, unfairly, tarnishes the Times' good name and reputation. Perhaps it is a consequence of having an assertive editor like Howell Raines. He believes that the Times must "flood the zone" in covering stories like Augusta so that it owns these stories. A consequence of a strong editor like Raines is that junior editors will seek to placate him and what they think he wants. The result is anticipatory censorship -- killing the two columns because they were perceived as going against what the boss wanted. This is one school of thought among Timesologists.

A second school is more benign, claiming that the Times has traditionally opposed internal fratricide in its pages or the hiring of, say, an Ombudsman. For a sports columnist to go after the editorial page posture, it is said, is unseemly. The third school says that Raines did it. That he didn't like the intramural squabbling, didn't like the opinions expressed, and perhaps because he spent years developing his voice as editorial page editor, he sometimes has a hard time stepping back and thus couldn't.

Whichever explanation is correct, the harm is done. Ammunition has been granted to those who argue that the Times has an agenda. I don't believe this is true. I do believe the Times has blind spots, and one of them is a certain lack of humility. They should have just simply apologized for a colossal blunder.

IWM: The FCC is expected to relax certain media ownership restrictions, which could bring a flood of media consolidation. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Auletta: It's a momentous thing. And the decisions, which are expected this spring, are being made without a series of public hearings and without much debate or media coverage. Not exactly what you hope for in a democracy.

IWM: What's your opinion of a possible merger of CNN and ABC News?

Auletta: It probably won't happen, largely because it is so hard to decide who decides and so hard to imagine how decisions will be made if no one entity is in charge. If it were to happen, it would reduce by one the number of voices weighing in on any story, which troubles me.

IWM: You have reported on many of the top players in media, including Ted Turner, Howell Raines, Barry Diller, John Malone and Rupert Murdoch. Who has been the most challenging to write about?

Auletta: Howell Raines was easy to profile, because he's a self-confident man and let me roam his newsroom and talk to whom I pleased. And he didn't wuss me to death with questions -- "Am I going to like this piece?" "What's the worst thing you've heard about me?" Getting people at the Times to go on the record was harder, because -- like the politicians journalists complain about -- they didn't want to offend their boss or be controversial.

Rupert Murdoch was hard because his journalism is often deplorable and yet his boldness as a businessman is so admirable; he is ruthless yet personally likable. The challenge was to strike the right balance. With Ted Turner the challenge was to profile someone who is so familiar in a fresh way.

IWM: AOL Time Warner recently announced a new strategy for America Online, which includes providing AOL subscribers with proprietary content. CEO Richard Parsons says AOL's new strategy is "going to become the growth driver for all of the AOL Time Warner businesses." What's your opinion -- will it work?

Auletta: As we enter the broadband world of quick, easy Internet access, AOL faces the classic middleman problem: How do they not get squeezed out, like travel agents? Put another way: Why should customers pay AOL an extra monthly fee when so much information on the Web is free or cheaper?

AOL's new answer is that they will be offering exclusive content from their sister divisions -- from Warner Bros. movies and Warner records and HBO and CNN. But this poses another problem. To get these divisions to provide exclusive content to AOL requires strong central management that induces the parts to sacrifice their own profits for the good of the whole. This will require a cultural change in the company, for Time Warner has traditionally decentralized power.

IWM: A number of top media execs -- Bob Pittman, Thomas Middelhoff, Jean-Marie Messier -- were ousted from their posts this past year. What's the lesson here?

Auletta: Hubris is usually the one-word answer. Pittman, an extraordinarily able executive, made the mistake of believing the company could grow by 30 percent each year, and touted this. When they failed to meet these goals, Wall Street punished them (and him). Internally, executives tried to warn him (and Gerald Levin and Steve Case) that the financial targets were unrealistic, particularly in an economic downturn. But the salesman sold himself. Middelhoff got so puffed up that he forgot who he worked for -- the family. And Messier, as the Wall Street Journal reported, was warned early by his chief financial officer that Vivendi was over-extended, but he wouldn't listen.

IWM: Your interview of Steve Case at the Foursquare conference last month seemed to get a bit heated at moments. Do you think he will still be chairman of AOL Time Warner a year from now?

Auletta: The answer to that question is largely out of Steve Case's hands. If the stock rises, and if the SEC investigation of AOL's books exonerates him -- he will no doubt remain as chairman.

IWM: What were the most important media stories of 2002?

Auletta: Bigness is not necessarily better (AOL Time Warner, Vivendi, Clear Channel).

IWM: What do you expect will be the big media stories of 2003?

Auletta: More bigness -- concentration of media ownership -- and the FCC's ruling later this year on whether to relax media ownership rules.

IWM: I Want Media is running a poll for "Media Person of the Year" -- the individual who had the most impact, for good or ill, on the media landscape in 2002. Who gets your vote?

Auletta: Roger Ailes of Fox News is one candidate, for he is setting the agenda for 24-hour news. A much less well known figure, Lowry Mays, the chairman of Clear Channel, the world's largest radio company, is another. Unlike Ailes, who just runs a news division, Mays is a corporate chief who drives to achieve synergy, which this year -- like last, or the year before -- is often journalism's poison.




Copyright 2000-2003 I Want Media Inc. All rights reserved.