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American Journalism Review
The Newhouse Media Empire  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   January/February 1995

The Newhouse Media Empire   

Newhouse: All the Glitter, Power and Glory of America's Richest Media Empire and the Secretive Man Behind It
By Thomas Maier
St. Martin's Press

Book review by Linda Fibich
Linda Fibich is a former Washington bureau chief of Newhouse News Service and a former assistant managing editor of Minneapolis' Star Tribune.      



Newhouse: All the Glitter, Power and Glory of America's Richest Media Empire and the Secretive Man Behind It
By Thomas Maier
St. Martin's Press
446 pages; $24.95

Thomas Maier, a reporter for New York Newsday, begins his critical biography of S.I. Newhouse Jr. with a quote attributed to Alfred A. Knopf: "A publisher is known by the company he keeps." In fact, it is chiefly by this measure that you get to know Si Newhouse, for Maier's subject did not cooperate with him.

But the company Newhouse keeps through the years is a fascinating one. It includes the late Congressman Allard Lowenstein and the late Roy Cohn, both boyhood friends. It includes the denizens of Condé Nast — Alex Liberman, the editorial director who colluded in, and thereby survived, Newhouse's management-by-guillotine at Condé Nast; Anna Wintour, Vogue's stylish and tough-as-nails editor; Tina Brown, whose resuscitated Vanity Fair won her a new playground at the New Yorker.

The book, like Si Newhouse's life, starts slowly. As Maier tells it, S.I. Jr. didn't emerge from the shadow of his famous father until S.I. Sr. died in 1979. "Newhouse" plods through those early years, hampered at times by its style. (Maier also has annoying lapses of grammar and spelling throughout the book.)

But "Newhouse" picks up steam after 90 pages with the introduction of right-wing lawyer Roy Cohn. From there forward, Maier builds a chilling case that, if Newhouse is the exemplar, concentration of media ownership has perverted the free flow of information in the United States.

Cohn, we are told, assisted mob interests in getting Cleveland's Plain Dealer to retract an investigative story in the early 1980s, one that accurately identified Jackie Presser, then aspiring to the Teamsters' presidency, as a government informant. At the time, Cohn was simultaneously lawyering for Newhouse and for "Fat Tony" Salerno, chief of New York's Genovese crime family. When the retraction was published, the Plain Dealer was picketed by members of its editorial staff.

Cohn also turns up on the cover of Parade, the Newhouse-owned Sunday supplement, using his tax problems to give 21 million readers "a piece of his mind about the Internal Revenue Service." The story was published while Si Newhouse and his brother, Donald, as executors of their father's estate, contested a $942 million tax bill.

Maier takes us into the courtroom for that tax trial, an event the press largely ignored. He argues persuasively that Si Newhouse's win there — which reduced the family's estate taxes to $48 million — was pivotal in the purchases of Random House and the New Yorker.

He documents Newhouse's influence on U.S. book publishing during the 1980s, when blockbuster titles started crowding out what another era's readers regarded as literature.

At Condé Nast, Maier tells us, Newhouse perfected a method of glitzy presentation that deliberately blurs "the distinction between editorial and advertising, the difference between what was used to inform and what was used to sell."

Maier has Tina Brown explain the genius of her Vanity Fair: "It's important for a magazine to have lapses in taste. If you don't, you're going to be completely bland."

?hen he critiques her New Yorker. Under Brown, he says, "perhaps the finest magazine this country has ever known" has lost its "essential voice..that gentle manner that provided the perfect backdrop for powerful reporting on society's most difficult issues."

Maier coins the term "trickle-down media" for the overall structure of the Newhouse empire. The family's newspaper group, he argues, is a mere financial engine for the glittering magazines and books published for a more demographically desirable elite. He doesn't ignore the newspapers' recent strides toward quality (see "A New Era at Newhouse," November 1994); he regards them as spotty and an insignificant piece of the larger Newhouse equation.

But if Maier is tough on Si Newhouse, he doesn't spare the rest of us. "By the 1990s, many of America's media companies finally recognized a free press for what the Newhouses always knew it to be: a powerful machine to reap an endless fortune," he writes. "Eventually, many writers realized that to get paid in an increasingly consolidated marketplace, they would have to adapt to the new rules of the game."

His research for the book was a case in point. Roughly half of those Maier interviewed talked only after assurances that they would not be named. "The fear of being cut off from Si Newhouse's company is the most common refrain when writers, editors and other publishing types talk about him," Maier observes.

The implication for unfettered journalism is as troubling as it is unavoidable.

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