KEN AULETTA HAS WRITTEN the “Annals of Communications” columns for The New Yorker since 1992, and is the author of eleven books, including five national bestsellers. His latest, Googled: The End of The World As We Know It, chronicles the ubiquitous company’s rise to prominence. Among Ken’s other books are: Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way; Greed And Glory On Wall Street: The Fall of The House of Lehman; and Media Man: Ted Turner’s Improbable Empire. In ranking him as America’s premier media critic, the Columbia Journalism Review concluded, “no other reporter has covered the new communications revolution as thoroughly as has Auletta.” He has been chosen a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library, and one of the 20th Century’s top 100 business journalists by a distinguished national panel of peers.
Auletta grew up on Coney Island, attended public schools, earned a B.S. from the State University College at Oswego, N.Y., and an M.A. in political science from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. Starting in 1974, Ken was the chief political correspondent for the New York Post, then staff writer and columnist for the Village Voice and Contributing Editor of New York Magazine. He has hosted numerous public television programs, served as a political commentator for both WNBC-TV and WCBS-TV, appeared regularly on Nightline, the News Hour with Jim Lerher, and the Charlie Rose Show. He has served as a Pulitzer Prize juror, a Trustee of PEN, is a member of the New York Public Library’s Emergency Committee for the Research Libraries, and the Library’s Committee to Protect Journalists. The State University of New York awarded him a Doctor of Letters in 1990.
Early in his career, Auletta taught and trained Peace Corps Volunteers. Last week, Ken was speaking at the University of North Florida, and made time to talk with novelist Tony D’Souza via email about his writing career, his path to success, his work ethic, his marriage to literary agent Amanda Urban, fatherhood, and, of course, his relationship with the Peace Corps.
Talking with . . .
. . . Ken Auletta
An interview by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000–02, Madagascar 2002–03)
Ken, let’s get this out of the way before we start: I admire your achievements immensely, envy your access and outlets, the stories you’ve covered. You’ve had a long and distinguished career, as has your wife, Amanda Urban. Are you living the life you dreamed of as a kid in Coney Island?
Growing up on Coney Island I hoped to become a professional pitcher or an FBI agent. Neither made any sense, but my imagination was limited. I got into the only college that would take me, the State University of New York at Oswego, and could not have done this without a boost from the baseball coach. In graduate school, while studying for a doctorate in political science (I received an MA), I imagined working as a diplomat or in government. I did work in government and politics for awhile. I’ve been a journalist most of my adult life. Go figure.
Your connection to the Peace Corps — you weren’t a Volunteer, you were a trainer. When and in what capacity? You also worked on the Bobby Kennedy Presidential Campaign. Were you more of an idealist in those days? How did the experiences of your early adulthood shape who you are?
In my second year of graduate studies at the Maxwell School at Syracuse U, I had a fellowship at the East African Studies Center. Syracuse U was a major academic center for Peace Corps trainees. My duty was to teach trainees about political science. I derived a tremendous sense of public service from this, as I did when I quit my job and went to work in Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign. As I do, not incidentally, from journalism and writing books.
Was journalism/writing something you always pursued, or was it something you fell into?
I was a weekly columnist for the Oswegonian and the editor of the college underground newspaper, which with tongue in cheek was called, Pravda. I wrote a weekly column for the Syracuse U school newspaper and also founded and served as editor of the of campus magazine. My first job out of graduate school was as a speech writer (and coat holder). After Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, I became the editor of a weekly newspaper, before heading back to government and politics. I wanted to go back to journalism but I felt a commitment to a reform candidate, Howard J. Samuels, who wanted to be Governor of New York. With my help as campaign manager, he lost twice. I then escaped back to journalism.
How did you land at the Post and then the NYer?
After Samuels lost the 1974 race for Governor, I was hired as the chief political correspondent for the New York Post. Two weeks later, I had a run-in with the then publisher, Dorothy Schiff, and I left. I would become a political columnist for the Village Voice and an investigative reporter for New York Magazine. When Rupert Murdoch engineered a hostile takeover of these two publications, to try and block this myself and about 40 other staffers went on strike, threatening to resign if Murdoch won. He did, and most of us quit. Soon after, I received a call from William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker, asking to see me. I started writing for The New Yorker in 1977.
How did you get your first book deal — was the idea of the book yours, or a suggestion? Did you write it first or sell the pitch? Three Blind Mice became a bestseller. Was that a life changing event for you career-wise?
The first book deal grew out of my coverage of New York City and state’s financial crisis while I was at the Voice, New York, and The New Yorker. Jason Epstein, the editor-in-chief of Random House, was rabidly interested in the subject and suggested a book explaining what happened and why. That book, The Streets Were Paved With Gold: The Decline of New York — An American Tragedy, was my first. My first bestseller came in 1985 with the publication of Greed and Glory on Wall Street: The Fall of The House of Lehman. My next bestseller was Three Blind Mice in 1991.
If I had to pinpoint a life changing event, I would probably go back to my first mentor, Abraham Lass, who was my high school principal at Abraham Lincoln H.S. I was in my junior year and “borrowed” a book of passes to leave the school on free period to hang out at the sweet shop across the street. The Dean nabbed me and threw me out of school. My horrified working class parents appealed to Mr. Lass, who met with me and asked, “Ken-nit, what do you like about attending Abraham Lincoln high school?”
“Football and baseball,” I said.
“Ken-nit, how do you suppose you can play football and baseball for Abraham Lincoln if you don’t attend Abraham Lincoln?”
He had my attention, and proposed that I could return if I gave up my free period and used them to read books he would assign and then discuss them. Abe Lass sparked curiosity and helped open my mind. Without his prod, I might have followed the tough guys in Coney Island who shunned college.
You won a National Magazine Award for your profile of Ted Turner, have gained access in other stories in ways other journalists couldn’t, such as in your latest book Googled. Can you give us some tips on conducting good interviews and gaining access?
Getting access to people often requires time and personality. Time, because prominent people require a period of courtship before they consent. It took me three years to get Rupert Murdock to consent to a 1995 New Yorker profile (which he didn’t appreciate). Personality, because no one will agree to open themselves up to someone who acts like a dentist eager to drill their teeth. If, on the other hand, you have an agreeable manner and convince them that you really seek to understand them and what they do — and you have the time and space that is granted by The New Yorker and books — you’ve got a better shot.
Most people, even those we think of as egregious, think they are doing God’s work, and want the world to know about it. Convince them that you really want to understand them, which I genuinely do, and more often than not they will open up. In the end, however, they are not the audience you are writing for. Your audience is the reader, which means that you step back from your sources and tell the truth as best you can approximate it. When I am trying to persuade someone to cooperate I always say, “If I do my job, I assure you that I will write things you don’t like.” I’ve found that this candid comment helps convince them that you are not some slick salesman.
You’re married to the literary agent Amanda Urban. Is she one of your readers and/or do you collaborate with her? How did/does being a father factor into your career? How did you make time?
My wife reads everything I write before I turn it in. She is ruthless, but a great editor unafraid to leave bruises. Liking to be near my refrigerator, I work at home when I’m not traveling. One of the bonuses from a home office was being there when our daughter got home from school. Say hi and ignore her for half an hour, and then she would make her way into my office and we’d discuss her day and her friends and feuds and homework. Now that she’s a grownup, I miss it.
Is your home a revolving door of literary figures and conversations?
My wife and I share many interests and friends. Many of our friends are in kindred fields.
I’d like to know about your work ethic, discipline, and process. Is that something you can describe in brief? How has it changed over the years?
My wife calls me “anal.” I’m reasonably well organized, and systematically arrange my research and interviews. I compile these notes and documents and my notebooks and digital recordings into what I call an Index, which I then type into a Word document. I separate everything by categories — bio, chronology, etc. — and categorize each entry that starts with the name of the person or document, a headline of what they said, followed by the notebook and page # it can be found in (B, p.56), the book (IV, p36), or the document (202, p.46). A New Yorker profile might consist of 40 single-spaced Index pages. My Google book consisted of nearly 300. This indexing is laborious and boring, but is among the most important steps because it grounds me in the subjects, allows me to see holes I need plug, and then to move sections around like a deck of cards to structure the narrative I want to follow.
You’ve had five bestsellers. Any reasons you can see why some of your books have made the list and other haven’t?
No, and if authors and publishers knew the formula they’d only publish bestsellers.
You’re a New York Public Library Literary Lion, work with PEN, do many altruistic things. Your work has a “watchdog” quality to it. Did this come from your upbringing? Experiences? Education? Or is it just “who you are”?
Journalists spend a lot of time observing. Which is another way of saying, watching.
What do you think of the Peace Corps today?
I admire the Peace Corps mission and the people who devote part of their lives to serving others.
Tips for younger writers?
A good journalist or writer needs a number of qualities — write well, think well, know how to craft the who, what, and why of a story. But the most important quality they need is humility. For without humility one does not listen. One does not ask questions. One assumes they already know the answers. Those who follow this route are destined to become poor journalists — or bloviators on cable television.
What are you working on now?
New Yorker pieces. Here’s another tip: dance around the question when anyone asks what you’re working on.
Seminal moment(s) in your career? Life?
Too many to recount, but they start with Abe Lass and high school and parents who wanted more for their son.
Tony D’Souza is the author of the novels Whiteman and The Konkans. His new novel, Mule, will be released in September by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.