New York -- Steven Brill, 44 years old, Yale Law School graduate, founder and editor-in-chief of the hard-hitting American Lawyer magazine, mini-mogul of a growing legal-news empire, host of a profitable series of legal management seminars and the man who invented Court TV, wants to make one thing perfectly clear: He is not, repeat not, a lawyer.
"I am very sensitive to this issue," Mr. Brill says. "In fact, every time I get introduced as a speaker I always say, 'I am not a lawyer.' This is not because I'm such a straight-arrow guy. It's because I once wrote a vicious piece about [lawyer and author] Mark Lane, who then went out and staged a press conference to announce a law suit against me, saying, 'This guy has never passed the bar exam.'"
Steve Brill pauses for effect, then fires off his punch line: "The fact is, I never took the bar exam."
Setting the record straight on this issue is important to him. He repeats it later in the interview, pointing out the difference between failing an exam and skipping an exam.
"I know a lot of law," says Mr. Brill, the son of a liquor-store owner, who won a scholarship to preppie Deerfield Academy and earned his bachelor's from Yale, summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa. "The fact is, there are some areas of law I could probably fake pretty well."
The fact is, Steve Brill never had any intention of becoming a lawyer. Journalism was always his goal.
"I think of myself as a journalist all the time, every minute of the day," he says, swiveling in his chair to face the view of Third Avenue from his midtown Manhattan office. "And I attack everything from a standpoint of journalism, of what's a good story. It's exactly the way I choose trials for Court TV."
Of course, choosing good stories for Court TV, a 24-hour cable network that covers live trials in courtrooms across the country, has not turned out to be one of journalism's most difficult assignments.
Since its debut in the summer of 1991, Court TV's live coverage has included such "good stories" as the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, the Jeffrey Dahmer insanity hearing, the Rodney King police-brutality trial, the Woody Allen/Mia Farrow custody hearing, the Reginald Denny beating case and -- not to be overlooked -- that blockbuster of a trial featuring the Menendez brothers, Lyle and Erik, who shot their parents and then went shopping for a Porsche and a couple of gold watches.
When it comes to storytelling, these trials have got it all. Sex. Violence. Cannibalism. Corruption. Greed. Racial injustice. Wife battering. Family intrigue.
You could say they are the Greek myths and Russian novels of our time; the modern-day equivalents of the tragic Electra ("Accused of Murdering Mother and Mother's Lover with Brother," as Court TV might caption it on your screen) or the brothers Karamazov ("Accused of Murdering Father").
"A trial is a story," says Mr. Brill, "and that's part of the fascination. It's about people who are in peril. Someone in that courtroom is either in danger of losing his or her life or losing a lot of money. And they're trying to fight off that peril. And there's a result. Do they win? Or do they lose?"
A trial, when televised live, he says, is also a cliffhanger. Nobody knows the end until the end. Not the judges, not the viewers, not the lawyers, not the defendants. That's the basis for Court TV's recent advertising campaign: "Great Drama. No Scripts."
"It's very exciting," says Mr. Brill, "because anything can happen." And he argues that a sense of community can come out of watching a live event on television: "It gives people a feeling that we're doing this together," he says.
Gearing up for O.J. Simpson
One of the things we'll soon be doing together is sitting glued to our TV sets watching the King Kong of courtroom dramas. It's looming just ahead, the Big One, the trial that threatens to slow down productivity, discourage voters from going to the polls and siphon off fans of regular TV soap operas.
In other words: the trial of O.J. Simpson, the most famous man ever accused of murder in America!
But first, a word of caution: It could be weeks, perhaps months, before you see gavel-to-gavel coverage of O.J. and Marcia Clark and Robert Shapiro and all the other characters introduced in the preliminary hearing. First comes the jury selection, scheduled to begin tomorrow and closed to all cameras. But once under way, Court TV will provide continuous live coverage of the trial. (Although Court TV is currently unavailable in the Baltimore area, United Artists Cable may offer it to city customers later this year. CNN also plans to carry live coverage of the trial.)
Unless, of course, the presiding judge, Lance Ito, decides to reconsider allowing cameras in the courtroom, a move some say may favor.
It's a question Mr. Brill has been expecting.
"I know what you're going to ask," he interrupts, sounding like the smartest kid in class -- which he probably was. "Do I think he's going to kick cameras out? No. Because Judge Ito understands that the only antidote to all the crap that's going on in that case is to see what actually goes on in that court."
The Kennedy connection
So. How does a kid from the Far Rockaway section of Queens, N.Y., wind up running a mini-empire? In Steven Brill's case it was all because of a broken kneecap. Forced to stay home from his eighth grade classes because of his injury, the young boy immersed himself in books about his hero John F. Kennedy.
"I read he went to a prep school called Choate," recalls Mr. Brill. "I had no idea what a prep school was. So I looked it up. Then I applied to several."
He ended up at Deerfield on a scholarship. "I didn't apply to Choate," he says now, "because I used to swim a lot and they didn't have a swimming pool."
He admits to being intimidated by the other students at Deerfield. "It was rather strange. I thought I came from New York City, but most of the other students -- who came from Park Avenue or Fifth Avenue -- didn't know where Queens was. I told them, 'It's where the airport is.' "
From Deerfield he went to Yale College and then to Yale Law School, which he describes as "an easy place." He attended few classes, he says, commuting to New Haven from New York, where he worked as an aide to Mayor John Lindsay.
All along he had been writing pieces for magazines, and after graduating from law school he went to work for New York magazine.
Not too long after that, Steven Brill had this neat idea. He wanted to start a magazine that would open up the mysterious world of lawyers to the public. Basically, what he wanted to do was knock the legal profession off its pedestal. And he did. At the age of 28, Steve Brill produced the first issue of his magazine, American Lawyer.
The magazine became a "must read" within the sedate offices of the country's most prestigious law firms. And gradually, after an initial reaction of horror and disdain -- too "gossipy" pronounced the legal community -- the magazine became a part of the legal culture.
But Steve Brill, who is married to a lawyer and has three young children, was always thinking about how he could open up the world of law to non-lawyers. Another magazine, perhaps? Somehow that idea didn't work for him.
Then one day in 1989 Mr. Brill thought up the idea for Court TV. It came to him while riding in the back seat of a New York taxi, listening to radio coverage of a local trial. "This is good drama," Mr. Brill thought. "Why not do it all day? And on television?" It seemed like a perfect way to reach non-lawyers.
He had no trouble selling his idea to Steven Ross, former chief executive of Time Warner. "That part was simple," says Mr. Brill. "Selling the idea past that to cable operators and the legal community was a lot harder. Lawyers, especially, thought it was a horrible idea. Totally boring."
Lawyers had this perception, says Mr. Brill, because many of them do have boring jobs. "Court TV only does 200 trials a year, so we have the advantage of picking the 200 most interesting trials in the United States." But he is quick, very quick, to point out that "interesting" does not mean "sensational or sleazy trials."
It is a criticism -- the charge that Court TV chooses only the most sensational trials to cover -- that has dogged the program since its inception.
Mr. Brill bristles at the mention of such criticism. "The only critic I've heard say that is Alan Dershowitz," he says, spitting the name out as though he'd just bitten into a bad apple.
Mr. Dershowitz, the Harvard Law School professor who will serve as part of the O.J. Simpson defense team, declined to discuss Mr. Brill or Court TV for this article. But in 1992 he told USA Today that if Mr. Brill "could have his way, all he'd show would be rape, porn and cannibalism trials like that of Jeffrey Dahmer."
Such charges still get under Steve Brill's skin. "Alan Dershowitz says we only pick sensational cases, . . . but he doesn't mention the sensational cases we don't do and haven't done and could have done." He cites the case of Heidi Fleiss, the so-called Hollywood madam, as one Court TV passed up. "It was a sleazy trial. There was nothing redeeming about it."
In fact, Court TV has covered a wide range of trials since it began, cases concerned with issues that range from discrimination in education to medical malpractice to an intellectual property case involving the New Kids on the Block.
Teaching a lesson
From the very beginning, Mr. Brill says, he wanted to take the mystery out of the law. To accomplish this, he decided that each of the trials picked for Court TV would teach the viewer something about the legal system. According to Mr. Brill, the trials of William Kennedy Smith and the Menendez brothers taught the country a "significant lesson about the burden of proof and the presumption of innocence." This public education aspect is trumpeted in Court TV's promotional material, describing it as "Public Service Television At Its Best."
But some question the validity of such a claim.
"My point of view is that journalism can always find a rationalization for a salacious interest," says Bob Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. "People don't watch the Menendez brothers' trial to get a better sense of the legal issues but for the sensationalism. What we learned from the Menendez brothers' trial is that it's hard to tell a courtroom from a mini-series. Still, having said that, it is better that the public should learn about the courts from Court TV than from their local news that night." He pauses. "Or worse yet, from 'L.A. Law.' "
In his initial business proposal for Court TV, Mr. Brill described the project as "a unique marriage of upscale serious programming with the appeal of tabloid television." Is that how he would describe it now?
"I don't think I said . . . well, I may have said . . . no, I don't think I did say 'tabloid' television," Mr. Brill counters. "It has indeed the appeal of tabloid television -- without being tabloid television. It takes the subjects of tabloid television and reports on them in a serious way. . . . It uses the same subjects to teach people something and to inform them. And in that sense, it acts as a
contrast to tabloid television."
Some critics worry less about the effect of Court TV on the viewer and more about its effect on the trial itself.
Positives and negatives
"I don't believe the positive effect of live court television comes close to outweighing the negative effects on witnesses, on judges and lawyers, . . . on the defendant and on jurors," says Rory Little, associate professor at University of California, Hastings College of the Law. "I think all criminal trials should be taped but not shown live. They should be held for six months to a year and then shown. You would still have the public education value, . . . but without the negative effects."
Live television coverage of a criminal trial, Mr. Little argues, can discourage witnesses from coming forward; can affect the views of jurors; can change the testimony of witnesses; can cause judges and lawyers to grandstand for the camera.
"Judges and lawyers will do the case differently if they're on TV," Mr. Little says. "And I think they're all doing that in the O.J. Simpson case."
Nonsense, says Mr. Brill. "The least problematic thing a juror can see when they go home at night is what happened in the courtroom. They're only seeing whatever they see. They're not seeing some blow-dried anchorman do a capsule summary of what happened or seeing the prosecutor hold a press conference on the courthouse steps."
As far as grandstanding goes, Mr. Brill says: "It doesn't happen. Every single state that allows cameras in court has done a study. And every single study in all 47 states has said it didn't happen."
Judge Burton Roberts of the Twelfth Judicial District in the Bronx was the head of a New York state committee that looked into audiovisual coverage of courtroom proceedings. The final recommendation was that such coverage become a permanent part of the state system.
"Our investigation revealed that after the court proceedings begin, most of those involved -- the jury, judges and lawyers -- forget the camera is there," says Judge Roberts.
Nonetheless, a group of federal judges last week decided to continue a ban on cameras in federal courtrooms.
But federal trials constitute only a small percentage of Court TV's coverage. What Bob Lichter, the media analyst, worries about is whether the state criminal cases aired by Court TV are becoming the equivalent of televised sports.
"Instead of learning about the justice system, viewers become rooters for their team," he says. "It encourages people to take sides and have an emotional investment in their side winning. And it can turn us into a nation of voyeurs."
One attorney in the Menendez case -- Leslie Abramson, who represented Erik -- complained on ABC's "Nightline" recently that Court TV's commentators had gotten too much into the "who's winning" and "who's losing" play-by-play technique.
Steve Brill, who is very sensitive to descriptions of Court TV as the "Wide World of Courts," with its chief anchor Fred Graham playing the role of Jim McKay, has just fired off a letter to Ms. Abramson, along with a copy of instructions received by every Court TV commentator. The commentators, by the way, are unpaid and include such heavyweights as Robert Bork, F. Lee Bailey and Arthur Liman.
"We give our commentators very specific instructions -- every single time -- explaining what they're supposed to do," Mr. Brill says. "They're not supposed to give any kind of evaluation of who is winning or who is losing. And most of them follow those instructions. And most of the time when they don't follow them, we've yanked them off the air."
He declines to mention the name of anyone who has been yanked off the air, saying: "After all they are doing us a favor. We don't pay them." Despite that, Court TV is flooded with resumes from attorneys across the country who would like to be part of the program's board of commentators.
The Simpson trial
A question is posed to Steve Brill: If the Menendez and Smith trials taught us about burden of proof and presumption of innocence, what are the lessons we might learn from the O.J. Simpson trial?
"I think you're going to get a real lesson in scientific evidence," Mr. Brill says. "And a real lesson, as they did in the preliminary hearing, in search and seizure law. And a real lesson in how a jury has to go about judging the credibility of witnesses."
But Bob Lichter isn't buying Mr. Brill's public education stance or the views advanced by other news organizations who are attempting to attach a larger social meaning to the O.J. Simpson case.
"The media grafts on social issues like racism and wife battering to trials like the O.J. Simpson trial," he says. "And they pitch it in this way. The audience appeal is not learning about the justice system in action, it's 'See your hero, who may be a murderer, cut down to your size.' "
So, Mr. Lichter is asked, would we be better off if the O.J. Simpson trial were not televised live?
"That's a bottom-line question, isn't it? And we academics don't like bottom-line questions. But, yeah, I think we would be better off if the O.J. Simpson trial were not televised," Mr. Lichter says.
But that, as we all know, is not likely to happen. O.J. is coming your way. And, says Mr. Brill, we'll all be better off for it.
NTC It was only through watching the preliminary hearing in the Simpson case, he contends, that people discovered there was no ski mask or golf bag or bloody clothes in the washing machine.
"I think Judge Ito is frustrated at the media," Mr. Brill says. "But I don't think he's frustrated with the prospect of people being able to see what he does and what the witnesses do in the courtroom, as opposed to what the leaks are and the crazy reports outside the courtroom."
The problem for viewers, of course, is going to be waiting until the end to see how it all turns out.
"We get people who call up Court TV and complain, 'How come the jury's taking so long? I want to find out what happened,' " Mr. Brill says. "But on Court TV, the results don't come in a nice, little, bite-sized, gratifying moment. It comes after weeks or months of fighting, of conflict, of testimony and after weeks of nothing -- because the jury is locked in a room and you don't get to watch them argue."
But, he says, "Not knowing the end is part of the appeal."