Rarely has a magazine launch inspired as many fireworks as Brill’s Content‘s did this summer. Perhaps only a few readers plowed all the way through its 27,000-word cover story — written by editor and founder Steven Brill — which accused the American press of prostrating itself before independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr. But millions heard about it through Brill’s energetic promotion of his latest enterprise (he is also the creator of American Lawyer magazine and Court TV).
Along with publicity, however, came cocked eyebrows and editorial broadsides. How, some critics asked, can Brill’s magazine cover the Clinton White House fairly when Brill himself contributed to Clinton’s re-election campaign? For a magazine dedicated to spotlighting conflicts of interest within the media, don’t its relationships with NBC’s “Dateline” (which, for a time, had exclusive access to Content stories), USA Network owner Barry Diller (an investor), and America Online (a distributor) create conflicts of interest? And what about those tobacco ads?
Mother Jones caught up with Brill in his midtown Manhattan office just as the second issue of Brill’s Content was closing.
When you look at American media, what do you see as its biggest problem?
A lack of systematized, independent accountability. And it’s also the best thing about American media, because the way most other countries solve that is with the government. The only thing worse than lack of accountability is making the press accountable to the government. What I think we can do, and what others to an extent already do, is develop a concept that this consumer product needs to be accountable to its customers. I think we can actually create more than embarrassment. We can create an economic incentive, a terrible thing to be preaching to the readers of Mother Jones. We can make it actually cost something for the NBCs of the world to mess up.
Before the magazine launched, you made an alliance with “Dateline” to provide certain stories to them, which you changed after the deal was criticized. There are a number of people who looked at that and were able to say immediately, What a bad idea.
I wasn’t one of them.
I knew the protection we’d have against editorial interference. I knew that the money they were giving us was insignificant, and we could get it anywhere else. And I knew that we weren’t going to bend over backward to be nice to NBC — in fact, I knew what the draft of my article [about the media’s coverage of the Monica Lewinsky story, which criticized NBC reporter David Bloom] said about NBC. See, the problem with the deal was the perception of impropriety, which in a situation like this is every bit as important as the reality.
Why “Dateline,” though?
Real simple. Because I had had a deal with them with Court TV, the same kind of deal. I liked the guys there; I trusted them.
I was on a panel at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in the fall, and someone said, “Are you going to be doing television stuff?” I said, “Well, we’re talking to ‘Dateline,'” and I described the deal on the panel, and no one said, How can you do that? And they all should have. One of the guys on the panel was Phil Scheffler from “60 Minutes,” and he said, “Gee, if you’re talking to ‘Dateline,’ why don’t you talk to us?” So I had one conversation with [“60 Minutes” executive producer Don] Hewitt, and I said, “We have to have total independence. We have to be able to say anything we want about CBS or ’60 Minutes.'” And he said, “You’re crazy. I’m not going to let you do this. Are you nuts?” And that was the end of the conversation with “60 Minutes.” [Editor’s note: When we contacted Hewitt to verify this anecdote, he said only that he “never seriously considered” such a deal.]
How much of a threat do you think the cross-ownership of the media poses to editorial independence?
The problem is that, long term, it’s a very big threat, and short term, the problem shows itself in subtle ways. I’ve been a well-known so-called victim of one of the less subtle forms of interference. And I think I have some credibility in talking about it. The kind of thing that happened with me and Time Warner, I think that’s unusual. [Editor’s note: When Brill headed Court TV, owner Time Warner pressured him not to air a profile of a Federal Trade Commission official, for fear that it might jeopardize Time Warner’s then-pending merger with Turner Broadcasting.]
What’s not unusual is, if you’re Time Warner, if you’re Disney, if you’re General Electric — those are the three that come to mind in terms of cross-ownership of everything between journalism and entertainment — if you’re a top executive, you go to media retreats with people who are pure business people. It doesn’t make them bad people, just pure business people. And you’re in an environment where profit margins are what gets celebrated a lot. And you start making friends.
In the long term, you’re not going to have the generation of people that you have today. If someone from General Electric calls Tom Brokaw and says, “That nuclear power thing, you don’t want to do that, and next December is when we’ll look at your stock option situation” — that phone call is not going to happen. Call me naive, call me stupid; I don’t think that phone call happens. But 20 years from now, under the same ownership? A person could come up under a system where they worked at MSNBC or CNBC — which don’t have the same standards as NBC — and they become the anchor 20 years from now, and their friend is someone who was with them at MSNBC and they’re at General Electric and it’s totally integrated — and that phone call will happen.
On that note, there are people who would say it’s wrong for one person to be editor and publisher of the same magazine, which is the case with you and Content. For the same reason — advertisers become your friends; people with money become your audience.
What’s the alternative? I’m a guy who’s a journalist and I have an idea to start a magazine. Do I go and put my fate in the hands of outside investors who appoint an outside boss, who — he’s my boss — who runs the business side while I run the editorial side? What would you do with a new magazine? Is the better alternative that I go and get money from Time Warner, and they appoint someone to run the business side? Ultimately [the] issue depends on my integrity.
It’s asking for a lot of trust. Why not take it to the next step and say, We’re going to have integrity as well as structure?
How would you structure this magazine? Would you take me out as being the editor?
That would be one way.
But I’m a damn good editor.
I don’t doubt that, but there are other good editors.
I’m the owner. I’m the business side. Whoever is the editor works for me. I set his salary. It looks better on a masthead, but that guy’s going to be reporting to me.
But he or she will have a certain amount of independence. There are editors who have quit their jobs because they’ve been asked to meet with advertisers. And here you are, an editor who just came from a meeting with an ad agency. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an editor meeting with an advertiser, except that it’s a distraction when people have work to do.
So, are you saying in all cases, then, that the separation of church and state is a myth and irrelevant?
No. It’s very important to keep things separate in everyone’s minds. What I’m saying is that separating it at the top is a myth. I don’t have our advertising people sitting in on our editorial meetings. Our advertising people aren’t even allowed to walk into the art department during the week when we have [the upcoming issue posted] on the walls. On a staff level, it’s very important because it prevents confusion and lapses in integrity.
But one of the things that I object to is [the] assumption in editorial minds — maybe at Mother Jones — that people on the editorial side have a monopoly on integrity and that classified ad sales people making $32,000 a year selling advertisements, that somehow they have no integrity. That all the integrity is on this side of the wall, there’s no integrity on that side of the wall, and I don’t accept that. I think it’s insulting. I think the assumption that you can build this great structure to keep the good people from being contaminated by the bad people — I just don’t buy that.
Do you think that taking tobacco advertising compromises Content in any way? (As you’re chomping on a cigar, but not smoking it…)
Actually, I decided to do it. My kids voted against it.
Smoking or taking the advertising?
Taking the advertising. (I actually only smoke about one of those a week.) My wife was for it. And then my partners…I just didn’t know what to do, so I asked them about it. You know, these are the money guys, but they defied expectations and they were against it.
That does defy expectation.
And then I decided I don’t have a principled reason not to take it, and I think, “I should take it because the money is good and we want this magazine to succeed.” I believe deeply in the idea that the best journalism comes from magazines that are economically independent. They’re not beholden to charity; they’re not forever losing money and looking for investors. But I’m not sure that it was the right decision.
Does that mean it’s under review?
It’s always under review. It’s a product that kills people. It unambiguously kills people, and that’s what bothers me about it. On the other hand, it’s legal; no one’s going to not die because we don’t take tobacco ads. On the third hand, that is exactly the rationale that people who sell heroin in school yards use: “If I weren’t selling it, someone else would be selling it.” So I don’t know. I basically took this position — I know I’m going to get attacked by all your readers for this — because I couldn’t figure out where I wanted to go, so for the time being, I’m going to take it.
There are studies — I don’t know if you’ve seen them or not — that show pretty demonstratively that magazines that take tobacco ads almost never write about the health effects of tobacco.
That’s not us. And if tobacco companies cancel advertising, this isn’t a dilemma I’m going to have for very long.
In that case, Mother Jones wants to give you a story: They say that since Condé Nast purchased Wired magazine, there has been considerable corporate pressure on Wired to take tobacco advertising, which they have historically not taken, for all the reasons that you just laid out. Is that a Content story?
Are you going to do it?
Yeah, I’d love to do it. I’ll tell you why it’s a good story: (1) We’ll do the story, and (2) we’ll also say we take tobacco advertising and there’s an issue about whether or not we should take it.
How much hope do you have that alternative or new media can overcome the shortcomings of mainstream media?
I think they do all the time. The best thing about, not only the Web, but about the advances in the technology of printing that make it cheaper to design good stuff, is that the barriers to entry for alternative media aren’t as bad as they used to be. I think that the ultimate salvation of media is that good media — especially with people like us cheering on good stuff and embarrassing the bad stuff — can drive out bad media.
If you end up in a situation where you can really send video over the Internet, then that eliminates [TCI’s] John Malone as the gatekeeper. And it starts to erode the brand-name advantages that broadcasters have.
Last question: Who are the writers, theorists, or critics on media who have influenced your thinking the most?
I’ll tell you what’s influenced my sense of what’s wrong with journalism: Reading the depositions in the Ariel Sharon-Time magazine libel suit. [Editor’s note: In 1983, former Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon sued Time for $50 million, charging that an article linking him to a massacre of Palestinians was libelous. Sharon lost the suit, but the jury found the article false and defamatory.] Seeing their thinking, and seeing that Time magazine had never printed a correction. I have a very simple theory on all this stuff: Any power that is unaccountable [causes] even good people to get upset when someone challenges them. I’ve been through that with lawyers, and I’m seeing it now with the press. It happens to me — when I’m criticized, I get pissed off, too.
It’s a simple view. It’s not left wing and it’s not right wing. We’ve had a ton of cancellations from the people on the right because of the first issue. And I promise you that the second issue or the third issue, we’ll get a ton of cancellations from people on the left. Anyone who thinks that the purpose of this magazine is to vindicate the left view that big corporations control the media is just going to be very disappointed. When that happens, we’re going to write about it, but that’s not the theme of the magazine. The right’s view that the press basically has a liberal bias — which I tend to believe on some level, at the Washington level — if they think that’s what this magazine is, then they’re going to be pissed off, too. Maybe we’ll end up with no readers.