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Vanity Fair

THE HIGHWAYMEN: Warriors of the Information Superhighway.\o7 By Ken Auletta\f7 .\o7 Random House: 335 pp., $27.50\f7

June 01, 1997|ERIC ALTERMAN | Eric Alterman is media columnist for the Nation, a commentator on MSNBC and the author of "Sound and Fury: The Washington Punditocracy and the Collapse of American Politics" (HarperCollins)

Journalist Ken Auletta has many powerful and media-savvy friends. On his acknowledgments page in "The Highwaymen," he thanks, among others: Tina Brown, the powerhouse editor of the New Yorker, where he works; Jason Epstein, the legendary editor at Random House, where he publishes; and Amanda "Binky" Urban, the extremely successful literary agent, who is also his wife. One of these smart people should have done him the great service of advising him not to publish this book.

"The Highwaymen" is a collection of four years' worth of Auletta's New Yorker magazine profiles of the titans of the global communications conglomerates. Some journalists' work lends itself well to this kind of collection. David Remnick, the New Yorker's wunderkind, published a book of essays and profiles called "The Devil Problem and Other True Stories," which is filled with minor portraiture likely to entertain and illuminate for years, if not decades. Joan Didion, Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, Janet Malcolm and Garry Wills are just a few of our current crop of literary journalists whose collected work is often greater than the sum of its parts. In addition to having the absolutely necessary critical eye, these writers report on people and places not for their own sake but to shed light or raise questions about issues that transcend the limited lives of their subjects.

Auletta, however, does not enter into the inner lives of his subjects sufficiently to illuminate their conflicts or dilemmas. Nor does he step back to examine the social and political impact of the brave new world that he believes they are creating. Rather, he simply follows them around, reports their comings and goings and presents them pretty much as they would wish to see themselves presented. The key question in these men's lives--and they are all men--always seems to be the same: "To deal or not to deal? Whether 'tis nobler to be rich, powerful and fly first-class . . . or use the corporate jet?"

Auletta's journalism is not without virtues. As "communications columnist" for the New Yorker, he is to media titans what Bob Woodward is to politicians: a human vacuum cleaner. An energetic reporter with unparalleled access to the high-powered world of billion-dollar deal-making, Auletta writes as if he were a fly on the wall of corporate boardrooms or as if he were on "the white leather armchair in the Gulfstream that Viacom acquired from Paramount, which was whizzing him and [Frank] Biondi back to New York" as he was when he wrote about Sumner Redstone. Every time one media conglomerate attempts to swallow another or to get together to perform a corporate marriage involving more than a dollar sign followed by at least nine zeros, Auletta materializes to provide an insider's blow-by-blow account. Oftentimes, he publishes while the maneuvering is underway, thereby informing the participants themselves of the effects of their machinations. He is therefore as much a player as a reporter. I would not be surprised if media-merger meetings have Auletta line items on the agenda, allowing public relations departments to rehearse spin tactics in advance.

But a fundamental conflict lies at the center of access journalism: When reporting on powerful people, every journalist must balance his commitment to his sources against his commitment to his readers. When a reporter is tied to a given beat, a beat in which the sources are more powerful than he is, he will be tempted to write his stories in a manner that will flatter the vanity of the people who are spinning him. If he insults their own ideas of themselves, they will be unlikely to make themselves available to him the next time around. Access reporters almost inevitably end up writing for their sources rather than for their readers.

Auletta's problem is particularly acute because the people he has chosen to profile are largely millionaire (at least) moguls with rather oversized opinions of their self-worth. (This proclivity earned him a wickedly accurate parody in the New Republic, written by two New Yorker contributors, signed above the nom de plume, "Ken Feletta.") The effect, for someone who does not share his admiration for media movers and shakers, can be unintentionally hilarious, as if one were reading a Marvel comic book for moguls.

Early in the book, the reader meets John Malone, the extremely conservative head of cable giant TCI, who considers the world of his classmates at Yale in 1958, as well as the world of contemporary Manhattan, to be "socialistic." Malone is, to Auletta, "a cowboy . . . a man of science . . . [who] has always prided himself on flying solo . . . an intense listener . . . the most influential man in television . . . a loner [who] maintained a naive faith in the power of his argument, in logic even though he had no faith in the logic of Washington or the media."

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