PROFILE: New Yorker's Auletta gains access through honesty

New Yorker columnist Ken Auletta has shed light on some of the biggest names in business and communications by approaching his subjects with an intense and sincere curiosity.

New Yorker columnist Ken Auletta has shed light on some of the biggest names in business and communications by approaching his subjects with an intense and sincere curiosity.

Ken Auletta's tan rivals George Hamilton's. You could be forgiven for confusing the two. Both have risen to the top of their respective fields: Hamilton, the field of burnished-bronze, vaguely famous cultural icons, and Auletta, the field of communications journalism. More precisely, Auletta communicates about communicators. He is a journalist who covers journalism, a writer who wins the confidence of business titans and gains access to the most inaccessible media barons. His "Annals of Communications" articles in The New Yorker have become the high-water line in the swamp of modern media coverage. Journalists, after all, like nothing better than writing about themselves, but Auletta's intense and sincere curiosity about his subjects allows him to pull the mask off of the names behind the brands. He's even made Rupert Murdoch sound human. Auletta is a Coney Island native who made his way to the State University of New York-Oswego to play sports (he dreamed of becoming a Major League Baseball pitcher). But a compliment from an English teacher spurred him onto the school newspaper. He's been a denizen of the ink-stained world since. Of course, he didn't start out mingling with Ted Turner and critiquing Microsoft's corporate power moves. Auletta admits that he had to slog through the muck, freelancing articles for obscure titles that nobody read and getting tossed from a columnist gig at the New York Post after less than a month because he didn't get along with the publisher. He also held real-world jobs ranging from the noble (training Peace Corps volunteers) to the gritty (heading New York City Off-Track Betting). He landed at The Village Voice in the mid-1970s, churning out investigative pieces on city finances that were somewhat staid compared with the overall far-left tone of the paper at the time. In 1977, he began contributing to The New Yorker, and for the last 27 years he has been crafting profiles that have thrown the haziest figures in the business world into sharp definition. Over his career, Auletta has studied people at all levels of the socioeconomic pyramid. His 10 books cover it all, from poverty to Wall Street moguls. "Powerful people behave a little differently," he says. "They may be a little more arrogant, they may take certain things for granted, they may want to assure that their business is a sure thing and reduce competition. Journalists should be there to record that, as government is there to block monopolies." One of Auletta's trademarks is his unparalleled access to his illustrious subjects. Occasionally they have felt betrayed by his bracingly honest assessments of their character. "You open up to someone, you think they'll like you, respect you, and approve of everything you do. If they don't, you feel angry. And it's perfectly normal," he says. He names Murdoch and ex-New York Times editor Howell Raines as two who were rubbed the wrong way by his articles. His advice to them? "Take two aspirin and go to bed, and maybe you'll feel better in the morning." Auletta is nobody's patsy. His skeptical eye, though, is tempered by a deep-seated thirst to understand people. Jeffrey Frank, who has edited his work for The New Yorker for the past nine years, says that "insatiable curiosity and energy" drive Auletta's selection of stories. "Ken comes into this as a truly honest reporter," Frank says. "He isn't trying to make a case. He isn't trying to push an agenda ... and people know they are going to get a fair shake from him." Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and a New Yorker colleague, has known Auletta for 25 years. "[Those] who get extraordinary access - a big factor is that when they request time with the person, they know what they're talking about," Lemann says. "He doesn't do any of the tricks that journalists do." Not only has Lemann rubbed elbows with Auletta in the rarified ranks of upper-crust journalism for decades, he has gotten to know him personally - Auletta's wife is his agent. Lemann calls his friend "a real mensch." He adds, "There's the Philip Roth model of the writer who lives at the end of a long dirt road by himself and doesn't see the world very much; that's not Ken." Indeed, Auletta's sunny personality has made him a popular public speaker (he addressed the PRSA convention in New York last month) and TV guest. His enthusiasm is such that he has appeared on the indefatigable Charlie Rose Show more than a dozen times in the past decade, discussing everything from the AOL-Time Warner merger to Connie Chung's career. Rose says that people yearn to be engaged by well-informed journalists who probe subjects deeply, and that Auletta fits the description. "He knows the landscape and the players," says Rose. "He has an extraordinary ability to soak up the environment and gain the confidence of people so they give him access. He has total integrity about reporting what he knows and sees." While some decry the field of media criticism as a product of ego-driven self-fascination, Auletta feels that it can be a valuable social tool if executed well. That means holding journalists to the same standards that they hold their subjects to: honesty, accuracy, and the pursuit of the common good. "I don't think you can have enough media criticism in a democracy," he says. "I think we're not used to criticism, and we should be." Despite his success, Auletta's face still betrays a sense of wonder at his own luck. And he has not adopted the sour elitism that might be expected in a member of the media vanguard. "When we get the paper in the morning, my wife grabs the front section," he says. "I read the sports." Ken Auletta 1992-2004 Columnist, "Annals of Communications," The New Yorker 1977-1992 Contributing writer, The New Yorker 1977-1993 Political columnist, New York Daily News 1974-1977 Chief political correspondent, NY Post; staff writer and columnist, The Village Voice; contributing editor, New York magazine 1965-1974 Peace Corps instructor; special assistant to the US undersecretary of commerce; aide to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's Presidential campaign (1968); Executive director, New York Off-Track Betting Corporation

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