TRIBUTE

Ken Auletta : An Appreciation

The Society of the Silurians, an organization of veteran journalists, honored Ken with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Ken has written for The New Yorker since 1977, and so the Silurians asked that magazine’s editor to reminisce.

by David Remnick



Ken Auletta, who started out on Coney Island, has made a singular journalistic career at least in part by having an uncanny knack for knowing where the story is and when attention is demanded. He has instincts.

As a young man, Ken focused on Democratic Party politics, on the campaigns of Robert F. Kennedy and businessman-turned-politician Howard Samuels. Although I have never known him to mount a horse, Ken, to my lasting astonishment, and maybe his own, was the first executive director of Off-Track Betting. Thankfully, those early mists cleared and he found his way to the better pastures of journalism—all kinds of journalism, and all kinds of publications.

He wrote for the New York Post when it was the Post of Dorothy Schiff, the patrician distributor of a spirited afternoon paper and roast beef sandwiches to her reporter-guests. He later wrote for the more expansive and open-hearted Village Voice, which is where I first started reading him. Ken might not have seemed a natural fit with the avant-gardist poets, left-leaning activists and punk-rock hellions of the Voice of those dayss—he has always been the most groomed and gathered and soft-spoken of gentlemen, at least by inkstained wretch standards—yet he had a deep sense of right and wrong.

A righteous man in the best sense, he was intent, always, on ferreting out bullshit and injustice. He was also intent on explaining the complex in lucid terms, whether it was a web of corruption in city government, a budding technology that was bound to change our lives, or a structural inequity in civic and economic life.

Among my favorite books of Ken’s early career are The Underclass, which carefully delineated the way poverty is lived in this country, and Greed and Glory on Wall Street, which was a thrilling narrative of rivalry and deception in the financial world before that theme became a staple of the bestseller lists. These are journalistic enterprises, I’ve always thought, that had a sterling pedigree, and Ken built on them with incredible industry and drive. The Underclass was a kind of successor to what Jacob Riis was up to when he set about describing tenement New York; Greed and Glory was a successor to John Brooks’s masterly business narratives for The New Yorker at an earlier time.

At The New Yorker, and in the books that have come out of his pieces for the magazine, Ken was an early arrival to the Information Age, writing deeply and without compromise, about Microsoft, Google, and the other titans of Silicon Valley; about the changes in television and advertising; about the revolution in news and the way we receive and generate information. Ken moves easily among movers and shakers— they trust his integrity, his accuracy—but when circumstances warrant he always knows where first principles reside: in the work. He acts accordingly.

Even when Auletta comes up short, he comes up long: Many years ago, Ken pursued a profile of Harvey Weinstein. And while he produced a piece that was deep and in no manner soft—Weinstein came off, at best, as a bully—he (and his editors, to be sure) were not quite able to get to the worst of Weinstein’s predilections. The sources at that time were just not prepared to go public.

And yet last year Ken was his generous self. He directed a much younger colleague, Ronan Farrow, to The New Yorker to do his own work on Weinstein, which had benefited from Farrow’s industry and a range of sources who now seemed prepared to tell their stories. Farrow has said repeatedly, and rightly, that the magazine would not have won the Pulitzer for Public Service without Ken’s encouragement of Farrow and Ken’s own early digging. And this came naturally to him. Ken has been encouraging younger reporters for three decades as a judge of the Livingston Awards.

Now it is all well and correct to talk about Ken’s countless achievements—his books, his articles, his capacity to interview people on stage with equal measures of incisiveness and shrewd probing. And more achievements, more books, are to come, undoubtedly. The guy is tireless. But I think it’s even more important to point out what everyone who knows him recognizes in Ken—a character of confiding, genuine warmth, decency, humor, integrity, a boundless capacity for friendship and kindness. His wife, Binky, and their daughter, Kate, know all this better than the rest of us, but it’s not something hidden behind layers of the journo-reticence of an earlier age. It’s all right out there: Ken Auletta is just about the nicest guy on any island, Coney or otherwise. All hail Ken!



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