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Journalist speaks on media duties

Maddie Hanna | Friday, September 9, 2005

Renowned media commentator Ken Auletta once saw New Yorker editor William Shawn shell out $80,000 to add eight pages to the magazine and run Auletta’s piece in its entirety.

“I know that will never happen again,” Auletta told those attending Thursday’s Red Smith lecture at Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Center. “He [Shawn] believed that we worked for the readers, not the shareholders.”

Auletta’s lecture focused on the issue of who journalists work for, a question he believed is increasingly polarizing the journalistic profession.

“Perhaps the biggest problem in journalism is the cult divide between journalists and corporate owners,” said Auletta, who explained the differing philosophies of each camp.

CEOs, Auletta said, want journalists to abandon their “elitist” ideas and “give the public more of what it wants,” not just what it needs.

“In the end, you have to listen to your customers,” Auletta said, playing the part of corporate owner. “Isn’t a good business supposed to understand its customers?”

The problem arises, Auletta said, when journalists focusing on their “craft” clash with the business approach to their profession.

“Journalists prize independence, not teamwork,” Auletta said. “Journalists understand waste is inherent to good journalism … that good reporting and writing is hard to quantify.”

Although as a journalist Auletta understands the anti-corporate sentiment, he made several concessions.

“It’s wrong to portray our bosses in a cartoon fashion as greedy capitalists unconcerned with anything besides maximum profits,” he said. “Most journalistic enterprises need to make a profit [and provide a range of news]. But too often this journalistic supermarkets have become specialty stores.”

After citing five major “vices” in today’s journalism – synergy, infatuation with brand, lack of humility, hubris and bias – Auletta gave an eight-step solution to the progressively widening rift.

“First, give journalists more time and space,” he said. “Too often journalists are like firefighters – we are reacting, not thinking. Journalism is about sifting information, finding different courses … It’s not just a bird’s eye view.”

Secondly, Auletta said readers needed access to essential hard news stories, for the public good.

“Journalists and the people who sign our checks have to be willing to risk boring our audience” with more government and international news, he said. “It’s not easy.”

Although he listed bias as a journalist’s vice, Auletta said objectivity was impossible.

“But fairness is possible. Balance is possible,” he said. “We can be skeptical without being cynical.”

Auletta stressed the importance of diversity in the newsroom and better communication between journalists and businessmen and women. He denounced the idea of a partisan press, saying it would only create further polarization in American society.

His last piece of advice?

“Be prepared to be fired,” Auletta said.