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The Wide World of Media Moguls

The Reality

Chronicler Ken Auletta Sees Danger On the Road


Where does the so-called Information Superhighway actually lead, and who will be collecting the tolls? Ken Auletta, author of the book "Three Blind Mice," which chronicled the demise of network television, has spent the past five years exploring that issue, covering the communications industry for The New Yorker magazine.

His latest book, "The Highwaymen: Warriors of the Information Superhighway," compiles 16 in-depth pieces Auletta wrote during that period, showcasing the writer's rare fly-on-the-wall access to entertainment moguls such as Fox's Rupert Murdoch, Disney's Michael Eisner, Viacom's Sumner Redstone and Time Warner's Gerald Levin.

Auletta, 55, was called "an anthropologist" by director Nora Ephron during a reception for him in Beverly Hills Wednesday, someone who lives among media power brokers to monitor their actions.

Some matters Auletta writes about are also dealt with in the HBO movie "Weapons of Mass Distraction," in which two media barons leverage their diverse assets while going to war over ownership of a professional football team. The movie brings to mind not only Murdoch's negotiations to acquire the Los Angeles Dodgers but also the public feud between Murdoch and Time Warner Vice Chairman Ted Turner, which spilled over into Murdoch-owned newspapers.

Auletta likens the current media battlefield to 19th century Europe, where a handful of powerful nation-states jockeyed for dominance. Yet in this case, thanks to new technology, the rules keep changing. "The dangers of monopoly today are often more subtle than they once were," Auletta writes.


Question: You've written a lot about media consolidation. Why should the public care? What's the public-interest issue?


Answer: There are several issues. The public has always cared about trusts, about bigness, about restraint of trade. The new form that monopoly can take is more subtle than the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, the J.P. Morgans.

The rubric is convergence. You have all these industries basically creating the Japanese model of keiretsu, which is "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours and we'll have this alliance." . . . If Microsoft and NBC are in business together, as they are, will NBC aggressively pursue an investigative story about Microsoft?

A second set of questions is the images that the people at the top of these communications companies perpetrate, and disseminate, have great impact on a society and its people. Rupert Murdoch owns a major publishing house, so he decides what books get published. Fox has great impact. When they decide to take "Melrose Place" and move it from 9 o'clock to the traditional children's hour [at 8 p.m.], that was the beginning of the end of the children's hour. Big decision. These are people that have a big impact on what we think, and the values of a society.

Third, those industries are now negotiating and maneuvering to make decisions that will have huge cost consequences for us as a consumer. . . . When I write about these people, I don't think I'm just writing about private businessmen who are going about their little esoteric maneuvering. They're making impactful decisions.

Q: Is there something unique about this generation of moguls, in terms of comparing them to the ones who started the movie industry?

A: There are a number of differences. When we think of press lords--the Hearsts, the Luces--we're talking about people in one industry, newspapers or magazines, in one country. Murdoch is on five continents, [and] he's a multimedia mogul: He's in print, newspapers, book publishing, magazines, TV, satellites, movies, online, music. The level of power Murdoch has, to cite one example, or Ted Turner, to cite another, is much greater than the power of [the earlier moguls]. The question is, do you abuse that power?

Q: That's the notion in "Weapons of Mass Distraction"--the idea of whether they can use that power to bludgeon their enemies and reward their friends.

A: As I demonstrate in the profile of Murdoch, there are occasions when he has abused, in my judgment, that power. He did not follow the precepts of Journalism 101, that you don't exhibit an interest. . . . The Sun [in England] has often become a partisan newspaper, just as the New York Post has--and I don't just mean the editorial page, I mean the news pages. That shouldn't happen.

Q: You've said this consolidation is bad for journalism.

A: It's broader than the characters we're talking about here. The buzzwords that are very common in the business lexicon--like "synergy," "leverage," "borderless companies," "teamwork"--are oftentimes anathema to good journalism.

Our job presupposes that we have a sense of distance from the people we're writing about. We don't want a borderless company. We want the wall between the business side and the editorial side to be tall--a church-state separation. We don't want to cross-promote. In fact, if we do, we lose credibility with our readers and viewers.

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