Ken Auletta

Ken Auletta was interviewed on July 16, 2014. He appeared on Booknotes on October 6, 1991, where he discussed his book Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way.

Interview transcript

Today is Wednesday, July 16, 2014, and we are interviewing author Ken Auletta, who appeared on Booknotes on October 6, 1991, to discuss his book Three Blind Mice, How the TV Networks Lost Their Way.    Hello, Mr. Auletta. We're catching up on an interview that was done what, 23 years ago?

Time flies.

But we're interested in hearing what you have to say or what you recall, and I'm especially interested in hearing how you as a person who deals so deeply and intimately with the media works, with things about C-SPAN and Brian Lamb and the legacy of Booknotes. So I'd like to know how did your book come to be on Booknotes?

I'm not really sure. What happened, as best I recall, is that the publicist for Random House, who was my publisher, set up a book tour, as you do for any book, has hopes of being a national book. Among the stops on my schedule in Washington was Booknotes. I was thrilled that it was on my schedule. But how it came about, I don't exactly know, but I just assume it came through the C-SPAN talking to Random House publicity.

All right. So how did you prepare for your appearance on Booknotes?

I didn't.

So what do you remember most about from your appearance on the program, and if you could describe your experience on the show?

It was wonderful. What I remember vividly is that, first of all, you have to compare it to other television entities, or many interviews, not just television, but mostly television and radio. The people who were interviewing you, had not read your book. And so they will ask you a kind of a gotcha question. And really kind of a soft question if they really say either, "Tell us about your book, Mr. Auletta," which is a softball dream of any author, which you can say whatever you want. Or they'll say, the introduces saying, "This is the author who the television networks are trying to censor. How do you feel about that, Mr. Auletta and Brian Lamb sat there calmly. He had the book all marked up. He had notes in front of him of questions he wished to ask that he had scribbled by his own hands. And he didn't, he began very slowly. I mean, he began with this book, "Took You How Long," you know, questions like that, because he had a luxury of time. That's a luxury that most media interviewers don't have. It's always rushed. So the author generally gets to complete a sentence, not a paragraph. And with Brian Lamb, you were completing paragraph.

Judging by the extensive marginalia in the books, it appears Mr. Lamb read them thoroughly before the interviews. We have all the books here in our collection now, and they're marked up. I like to call them the librarian's nightmare.

I understood.

And do you find this to be normal for interviewers, to be that carefully read, and how does it change the interview experience?

You don't, it's totally abnormal. I mean, every once in a while, you'll do an NPR interview in the host that spread your book carefully and marked it. But I've never encountered anyone who read it and made that many notes in a book during an interview--11 books I published--as did Brian Lamb. And what that means is several things. One is, you really look forward to it more because it's enjoyable. You're sitting opposite someone who's actually read your book, thought about it. And you anticipate they'll ask you some surprising questions, which is kind of fun. Yeah. Particularly on a book tour, but you, by, by, after several days of the book tour, and usually, then at least book tours are the last four or five weeks, you were bored to death with yourself. Suddenly you're sitting across from this very agreeable gentleman--and he is a gentleman-- who was actually written, done you the honor of reading your book, and asking you questions. And the question is not designed to trap you in embarrassing, but to draw out information the way a scholar would want you, or hopefully, a reporter would want you. And so you're kind of appreciative.

Mr. Lamb had an extensive background in the media and had worked in radio stations and in journalism in general. So I think you probably had a soft spot for your book.

That may be. And you know, I've a soft spot for him. I've dealt with him over the years, you know, either through email contacts or I know I've interviewed him a couple of times for pieces I've worked on, including once at the profile I did in the New Yorker of John Malone I remember talking about. 

Mr. Lamb asked about an author's research and writing methods. Do you believe the reading public finds these details about the practice of writing interesting? And do you think other authors or publishers find them interesting?

I think that a select audience, and that would include people who watch programs like this on CSPAN or people in the publishing or journalism business do have an interest in that. I think the general public probably does not. But if you're if you were seeking to, you're treating your audience as intelligent people, then what you want to convey to them or is in the picture of an entire of not just what an author has written in his book, but how an author approaches writing that book and reporting that book. And I think Brian Lamb essentially sits at that desk or on that soft chair when he interviews you. And he assumes that his viewers are intelligent people. He doesn't talk down to them. And so he's trying to give them a whole picture out of cartoon of the author's identity.

Mr. Lamb frequently asked his guests biographical questions. Did that surprise you? He actually asked you fewer biographical questions than most guests. And is this generally different from most author interviews you have experienced?

Yeah, I mean generally speaking, the interviews in say in television land are so quick. There's no time for that. You know, you're talking about a two-minute interview maybe. And so were three minutes. And so generally speaking, I'm not a celebrity, so then I'm interested in my sex life. And or who I'm having an affair with. And so generally speaking, you don't get many personal questions. You may get a question like what do you think of this person or what do you say to this critic or something like that. But you don't get many personal questions. So Brian again, Brian Lamb was looking to capture the entire person meaning the author. He's an interviewer. And so he asked, he would ask personal questions as well as questions about how you go about the task of gathering a book.

Well, were you surprised by any of Mr. Lamb's questions?

You know, I was and I've tried to remember what the question, one of the questions was but he did surprise me with a question. And I remember thinking at the time, I remember pausing. I didn't rush to answer because my mind was racing to think, what do I think about that? It was, I remember being really surprised by a really good question. But unfortunately,  I don't remember what it was. I was very admiring of it and thinking, oh my God, I don't know what the answer is to that. I guess think. And I literally, my mind was racing on while the camera was running. I came up with an answer, but I remember I didn't have a package to answer. When you do a book tour and you've written a book, you can, you know, it's almost a jukebox. You can compress anyone or be one and you have an answer to those questions that you've anticipated. This was one where I didn't have an answer because it was just a good, good question. I thought about it.

Bob [Vay] and I have listened to quite a few of these interviews on the internet. And I think yours by far, Brian was in fine-fettled that day because he really asked you some very good questions.

Yeah, I think you did too. I mean, it's, you know, when you're sitting there and you become very respectful of that, at least I do. I mean, I sat there and I'm sitting there and I'm saying, this is fun. I mean, I'm sitting, talking to someone who is bad the question, thought hard about it and is thinking hard about questions. And I was about to say tough questions and I don't want to, it might be misleading to use the word tough because it wasn't show off a tough, but they were tough questions sometimes. They were questions that made you think, which is what a good interviewer should do. And most interviews go back to an early question. But it's true in general in the media on a book tour. They don't ask you those good questions.

Did you watch Booknotes before or after your own interview? And if so, why did your experience on the show change your impression of it?

No, I had seen it some and both before and since and always respected it. And so I don't think I, I guess I didn't realize, until I sat opposite Brian, how thorough. And I actually saw the notes in his last, I didn't realize how thorough he really was. I knew he was thorough and I knew he was serious and I knew he really was interested in probing.

For Booknotes, Mr. Lamb intentionally worked on a minimalist studio setting so that the viewers focused could be entirely on the author being interviewed. This is very different from network TV, for example. What do you think are the pluses and minuses of such an approach?

Well I loved it. I don't know whether, you know, I'm sure that approach would not work together a mass audience. I mean, people would complain about its lack of production values, two cameras, et cetera, et cetera. But to spend over five years reporting and writing a book as I did on that book. And then to be able to sit for an hour and discuss it with someone who is read it carefully and is really interested in understanding and making sure that the viewer understands what this book is about and what the lessons, if anything, be thrilling.

The Booknotes series focused entirely on nonfiction books published between the late 1980s and 2004. What do you think might be the advantages of an 800 book collection with this focus?

Well, I'm sure that historians can go back and watch those 800 entities and it will illuminate that period of life in our country. I don't think there's any question about that. They also can be someone who wants to write a biography of some of the 800 authors who were interviewed. That hour long interview, the Brian Lamb did with Applebee is a valuable part of their research as well as oral histories. Those writers are still with us. And I just think it will be, I mean the thought that you have an ability to, I'm sitting here staring at my iMac screen and not reading anything, I'm listening to you. But I'm always awed by the fact that I could literally look down on my keyboard, do a Google search and maybe one day I'll be able to call up those 800 entities.

Well they are online.

Yeah, I mean I think, thrilling. I mean as a tool for me as a journalist is thrilling. As someone who has some intellectual curiosity, it's thrilling. And so if I'm reading a book by one of those 800 authors, and I know that I could then go and learn more about them by accessing one of Brian Lamb's interviews.

Mr. Lamb and C-SPAN had a rule for Booknotes that authors could only appear on the program one time. If asked, would you have returned for another interview?

Multiple. Yeah, gladly. Yes.

Now some of the authors, the books that they were interviewed by Brian Lamb on Booknotes for under this particular set of rules, how to put this delicately was the books were not their strongest book. Did you get caught in that conundrum?

No, I was thrilled to do with Three Blind Mice because it was a book I had invested more time as I said over five years than I had in any other ten books I published. And it was one I'm proud of. I mean I wouldn't say which child was their favorite. I couldn't say to you that through Mice was my favorite book. But I could say to you that I'm glad I did an interview that that was my one interview as opposed to, because I think it was one of more complicated books done. And certainly more complicated than say a collection of pieces I've done for the New Yorker, which has been a couple of my books. So I was thrilled to do it. And would have gladly done more.

Do you know if there was a difference in sales or national attention after your appearance on Booknotes?

I don't. I mean I know that there are times when, I mean I've been on today's show for book and you can see the sales jumping. And obviously with digital vehicles like platforms like Amazon, hey, you could more easily measure the next day's impact doing it. Big interview was made before in terms of visuals. But I had no way to gauge whether hearing on book notes bumped up. I did get comments from me. Candor, I got many more comments when I do a show like ratio or NPR. I don't know. But you know the truth is if 10 people watch would still be, you're going to need to tell it.

Did your experience with Brian Lamb and Booknotes cause you to rethink any of your approaches or assumptions regarding your research or writing?

Not that I can recall. Not that I could recall. Although I wish I could remember the question that surprised me because it may be that that one forced me to think in a fresh way about something. I remember, I remember the surprise I had when he asked the question. And I remember thinking to myself one smart question and one challenging question. And I remember coming up with an answer, the one forced me, I don't remember either the answer or the question. But if I had that, if I watched that, I'm sure I would be able to figure out what it was and then answer your question. Of forthrightly, whether it changed my opinion.

I would like to know what you've been working on since. Obviously, an outstanding collection of articles and columns and blogs for The New Yorker. But I would also like to know...  Three Blind Mice was a look at a particular time in which the network televisions were going through a crisis. Now that the technology has changed so drastically, you know, what does your book look like in terms of the whole new technology of the internet?

Well, you know, I did a book in 2009 called Googled. Yeah. The world as we know it. And Google was a close look at Google and how disruptive Google and digital technology was or the internet is to traditional media. And in many respects, and I've likened it to this many times, the book I wrote in 1991, Three Blind Mice was really a look at how a new technology, in that case, cable was disrupting traditional broadcast television.Three networks, which was Three Blind Mice, How the TV networks Lost their Way. Well, two decades later, when I wrote Google and the world as we know it, I was writing about how a new technology--the internet--was disrupting cable and broadcasters and newspapers. Telephone companies, everyone else. So in that sense, I was just, I was just extending my look at a disruptive technology, this case to Google. Three Blind Mice, that works versus cable.

Well, in your estimation, what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes in American society?

You know, I pause the way I probably pause when Brian Lamb asked me that question. I don't worry about it. In that, I'm not sure I haven't answered to that. I'm not sure a Booknotes has hada profound impact on society at large. It had a profound impact on me as an individual. And, you know, reinforced the admiration I have for Brian Lamb and what he's done, not just with Booknotes, but with C-SPAN. But I don't know whether C-SPAN has and Booknotes has had a transformative impact on society. I mean, it certainly has not had a transformative impact on television. Depressingly, it becomes briefer and more salacious and gossip. Superficial, unlike Brian Lamb. It's hard for me to consider intellectually and say that I got Brian Lamb has altered and the landscape of television interviewing and made it more serious. I think, "Opsie." And I don't blame him for that. He tried hard, but I, so when I think that way, I say, "How can I read it, Brian Lamb, and his wonderful interviews?"

Well, I'm just wondering if, in fact, with the, you point out in your book that the division of the networks, you know, that at one time American society, 92% of us were looking at the same three channels, and now everything is completely different. And you point out in your book that that's going to change society drastically.

I think it has. We don't have common source of nation anymore. We trust those who give us information less internalism. Speak out new sources that that inform to our viewpoints. The conservative Fox or liberal MSNBC or a blog post, I'm mistaken. And, you know, it's, so the Brian Lamb's of this world and the East End, I'm a desert. And it's one, you know, you want to, you want to go to, and because you think they had to seek a war to supply, and in the sense of being, you know, remarkable in what they do, they do have a secret. But there's still a desert. They're not, not part of the larger shift that's taking place in the media world, which is often, not always, often depressing. It's not depressing is that what's great about the media world is that you've got so many more sources of information that you can access, including cease. What you've also got is what democracy people can voice their opinions much more freely than they would have before. So there's both good and bad news. But the good news, the lingering good news is the span continues. The problem I have intellectually is that I know how small its audience is.And therefore as valuable as it is, its impact is going to be limited by the size of its audience.

Well, is there anything you would like to add regarding the Booknotes program, C-SPAN or Brian Lamb?

You know, I think one of the things that a good journalist hopefully is armed with is a belief that what they do is a public service, falling, that they are, that their job in a democracy is give readers or viewers or listeners the best information they can and as close to what they think the truth is as they can. So that people can make decisions in democracy. I think Brian Lamb has infused these bands, he founded it, and I think he set the culture with that public service sensibility and that you watch the people who conduct interviews with these bands and how willing people of all shades of opinion are to appear on. And you realize that Brian Lamb has built a culture, a legacy that of public service and they do is a good calling. And they feel that and they feel that because he insists, but he does. And that's a great tribute to him.

I've come to the end of my scripted questions and I think that's a lovely way to end this. So if I might formally say thank you very much Mr. Auletta for agreeing to do this oral history interview and for sharing your experiences on Booknotes. Thank you so much, sir.