Media Man

The Argument


September 26, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,Sun Staff

There's a paradox at the center of our media-soaked age that is often overlooked. While the big media have little to say, they are desperate to say it as quickly and widely as they can.

Lurching from celebrity trials to natural disasters to recycled political scandals -- many news organizations fail to illuminate the world around us. Yet the media are finding ever more ways to deliver their version of the news and with more immediacy -- around the clock, at home, at the office, online, in our cars, through our cell phones, in stores, elevators, airports, taxicabs.

Two recently released books hint why. Ken Auletta, a longtime chronicler of the news industry, offers an insightful treatment of the television magnate who founded the first 24-hour-a-day news channel in Media Man: Ted Turner's Improbable Empire (W.W. Norton, 187 pages, $22.95). An outgrowth of a New Yorker article, Auletta captures Turner's compulsive business genius and deep-seated insecurities -- intertwined traits that figured in Turner's rise and his ultimate overthrow as corporate boss.

With a combination of bluff and vision, Turner transformed his father's billboard and radio company into an entertainment juggernaut. Most Americans, though, remember Turner for the creation of CNN, which confronted and ultimately confounded the lions of CBS, ABC and NBC. National news no longer had to wait until 6:30 p.m. As its ambition expanded, and that of its network competitors waned, CNN emerged as, by far, the most consistent sponsor of foreign coverage of any American television news operation.

As Auletta observes, "Turner understood, in a way that many corporate leaders did not, that building a brand can be expensive. He understood, before his contemporaries did, that audiences would want to consume news differently -- would want to watch it unfold live."

Yet CNN's rise was often done on the cheap, in cost and in deed. There was -- and is -- a reflexive reliance on true crime stories, weather patterns and three-alarm fires in mid-sized American cities that caused few deaths but produced diverting visual footage. Meanwhile, the existence of CNN -- and that of its younger competitors, Fox News and MSNBC -- enabled network news divisions to rationalize their retreat from serious news. Web sites have proliferated that provide news up-to-the-moment, further rattling the establishment news outlets.

But the last new thing got swallowed up by the next new thing. Internet giant AOL took over Turner's parent company, Time Warner, to make the largest media conglomeration in history, promising Americans news and information faster, from a broader range of sources, from television, to magazines, to specialized Web sites. (After the Internet bubble burst, the Time Warner contingent wrested back control of the company and dropped the AOL name.)

If the march of human history represents clear-cut progress, well, then, all that consolidation would be swell. But it's hard to be buoyed by the current state of the media. Some innovations, even in the corporate press, are welcome. A broader array of political viewpoints are heard on television, thanks to the yak-and-attack shows on Fox, CNN and MSNBC -- but they shed heat, not light. Time Warner's Entertainment Weekly shows that new titles can be profitable as well as smart -- even if they focus attention on popular culture to the exclusion of all else. Meantime, mainstream news organizations, suffering from dwindling ratings and circulation, traffic in endless tales of celebrity suffering, true crime, health fads and can't-miss diets -- all indulgences that, like empty calories, fill us up without giving sustenance. Many of the stories we might need to function as citizens -- or that might give pleasure, inspiration or unexpected pause -- go undiscovered.

It is chilling to see how closely the values of the mainstream media verge on those of supermarket tabloids, at least as they are depicted in The Untold Story: My 20 Years Running the National Enquirer (Miramax, 314 pages, $24.95). Former Enquirer Editor-in-Chief Iain Calder's memoir spins tales of exploits as a scandal-chasing newshound who hungers for widespread respect.

When the right amount of money changed hands, Calder's staffers usually found a way to insinuate themselves into almost any celebrity circle. (The role that Tom Arnold played in leaking the details of the personal life of his wife-to-be, Rosanne Barr, is particularly astounding.) But Calder also ordered up pieces on heartwarming stories of human uplift, and the magazine sponsored (and publicized) charity drives so that readers could feel good about the Enquirer, which became a runaway success.

Calder takes pains to denounce what he claims is the hypocrisy of his supposed betters. After recounting incidents in which CNN and CBS paid sources for videotapes, Calder writes, contemptuously, "These were the high-principled newsmen who criticized the Enquirer when we openly paid sources for exclusives."

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