NEW YORK -- This balding man sitting here in his French cuffs, yellow necktie and suspenders in an 11th-floor office amid a drift of papers, Fed-Ex boxes, unread manuscripts spilling from the IN box, this would be the low-energy version of Steven Brill. Bushed but certainly not beaten, Brill sits in a clutter between appointments, between appearances on MSNBC and Charlie Rose, apparently weary from his plunge into a vast media hall of mirrors: the media critic criticized by the media to such an extent as to become a media phenom himself.
Brill's Content, a new monthly media magazine, has hit the newsstands on this day in the life of Brill, 47, erstwhile journalism wonder boy, creator of The American Lawyer magazine and Court TV, tenacious cage-rattler.
The magazine debuted on Wednesday, but the nation has been yakking about the magazine ever since last Sunday's New York Times gave Page 1 display to a story about Content's cover story. "Pressgate" accuses the media of becoming an "enabler" for Kenneth W. Starr's "abuse of power" in the Monica Lewinsky-President Clinton imbroglio. The article written by Brill, the magazine's chairman and editor-in-chief, accuses the Whitewater independent counsel and a top deputy of breaking the law by briefing reporters during the grand jury investigation.
Reporters named in the article have accused Brill of misquoting them and distorting a story about distorted stories. Starr -- who told Brill he did not leak grand jury information -- has written an open letter to Brill, saying "your reckless and irresponsible attack borders on the libelous." Starr's letter runs 19 pages -- still not quite as long as Brill's article, a 28-page blow-by-blow account of full-tilt media frenzy.
The blue-eyed man behind the big desk has in the previous 72 hours granted dozens of interviews and has appeared on "Face the Nation," "Larry King Live," "Today," C-SPAN, Fox News, MSNBC and the Don Imus radio show, among others. More appearances are scheduled this weekend on "Meet the Press," "Inside Washington" and "Reliable Sources." The buzz is a marketer's dream, even if Brill's article was described by a Newsweek reporter as "fundamentally dishonest" "utterly garbage" and "slimy."
As of yesterday, Brill planned to publish Starr's entire letter and two minor corrections of his story: the spelling of one person's name and a time-sequence detail in an account of how The Wall Street Journal posted an erroneous story on its Internet site.
The public outrage apparently has been good for business. Editorial director Michael Kramer says many distributors were sold out by week's end and were demanding more magazines. && He says the initial printing of 300,000 copies would be bumped up about 75,000.
"I thought that there'd be a lot of reaction," Brill says calmly. "The extent of it surprised me."
The graduate of Yale Law School is no stranger to insult, uproar or attempted intimidation. After he wrote a March 1976 cover story for Harper's, "Jimmy Carter's Pathetic Lies," Time magazine dispatched a reporter to discredit Brill's journalistic reputation. They came up empty but did manage to get one Washington correspondent to anonymously label Brill "a hit man" and "the liberal enforcer."
He received threats while writing "The Teamsters," a 1978 book examining the union's corruption. The following year Brill, who never practiced law as he never took the bar examination, launched The American Lawyer. Focusing on the business and personalities rather than the substance of law, the monthly magazine created a sensation in the legal world, variously applauded as groundbreaking or trashed as a barrister's National Enquirer.
This furor over Content, though, is unlike anything Brill has experienced before.
"This is more intense because this really is about the media, it's not so much Ken Starr," says Brill. "Ken Starr writing letters is not so much the pressure that we're under. It's the media."
The trick now, he says, is to "stay disciplined and remember the only people that count are the people you're writing the magazine for, not everybody else because everybody else, most of them, are going to hate you."
Brill, whose reputation as a volatile and occasionally cruel boss has been clearly established in published profiles, has never seemed very concerned about who hates him. The question of the moment is, once the "Pressgate" furor has subsided, who is going to buy the magazine.
Brill says his magazine -- subtitled "The Independent Voice of the Information Age" -- is "meant to appeal to a broad audience by writing about subjects that that audience is going to understand. Its constituency are the people who consume media, not the people that produce it."
Aside from "Pressgate," the first issue includes a mix of reported stories, columns and essays. The magazine profiles the people who book guests for live television news interviews and the chief book buyer for Barnes & Noble. A story under the heading "Media Diet" looks at the viewing and reading habits of a Wall Street trader and money manager.
There are plaudits: for the New York Times and its investigative ++ story on Columbia/HCA Healthcare and for a Chicago magazine writer who showed how the "Beardstown Ladies' Common-Sense Investment Guide" exaggerated its returns.
There are brickbats: Fashion magazines are chided for falsifying cover model cosmetics credits; "60 Minutes" takes a hit for failing to acknowledge faulty reporting in a 1986 story on an Audi mechanical flaw that apparently caused a deep sales slump from which the carmaker has only recently recovered.
Months ago Brill was predicting 700,000 circulation in five years, on par with Gentleman's Quarterly. Lately the projected circulation is 500,000, which would make it a bit better than the current figure for The Atlantic Monthly. Columbia Journalism Review and American Journalism Review, offering media critique aimed at people in the business, each have circulations of about 30,000.
Media magazines have been tried before, although not taking the same approach as Brill's Content (Brill's name was added to the title to avoid potential copyright conflicts). Since the mid-1970s there have been More magazine, Panorama and a quarterly published by Forbes. All were relatively short-lived.
Magazine mavens are skeptical about Brill's chances of doing much better.
Samir Husni, the University of Mississippi journalism professor who publishes an annual magazine guide, says people may mistrust the press and occasionally get angry with it, but he doubts this will translate into sustained interest in reading about how it works.
"If I am angry I just want to get my anger out and then forget about it," says Husni. "We tend to glamorize our work and we live in our own little world. It's hard for me to see, outside our profession, why anyone would be interested."
Steve Cohn, editor of Media Industry Newsletter, applauds Brill for orchestrating a spectacular magazine launch, but he shares Husni's doubts.
"Do people really care what Ken Starr told a reporter at the Washington Post? I don't know," says Cohn.
"We'll see," says Brill. "They may be right. You've got to try things. That's why they're consultants and I'm someone who tries new businesses."
With Content, Brill returns to the media universe from which he reluctantly departed in February last year. That's when he agreed to accept a sum variously reported as $20 million or $30 million from Time Warner to quit the helm of the company he
created, American Lawyer Media, comprising Court TV, The American Lawyer magazine, several regional legal newspapers and an online service called Counsel Connect.
He had been trying to buy the company back from his partners, Time Warner and Liberty Media. Then Time Warner merged with Ted Turner's cable operations. Turner, reportedly uneasy about Brill's alliance with NBC in the buyback bid, vetoed the deal. Eighteen years after launching The American Lawyer with financial support from a British newspaper company, Brill was out.
"I was angry that Time Warner reversed fields on me very quickly," says Brill. But, "It's hard to feel angry and feel like a victim when there's a ton of money dropped in your lap."
Brill had money, freedom and a few ideas. He considered writing another book. He was reportedly talking with folks at Dow Jones company about a position there and with the Hearst Corp. about the editor's job at Esquire. Before too long, plans for a media magazine were taking shape.
"The idea of doing a magazine like this has been on my mind a bunch of years," says Brill, who started writing for New York magazine while he studied law. Before the split with Time Warner, Brill says, he broached the subject with chairman Gerald Levin, but they agreed that the conflicts of interest inherent in a media giant doing media criticism "were just hopeless."
To finance Content, Brill took on three partners: Howard Milstein, a real estate investor; Lester Pollack, an investment banker; and Barry Diller, the former head of the Paramount movie studio who owns USA Network, the cable TV operation. Brill won't be specific about the partners' shares in the private company, Brill Media Ventures L.P., but he says he owns a majority of it.
Asked about the potential conflict or appearance of conflict in his partnership with Diller, Brill says he's not concerned because the USA Network does not consist primarily of "nonfiction media," which is what Content covers. The company does produce "The Jerry Springer Show," which ostensibly is nonfiction. If Diller starts producing news shows or acquires a company that produces news, Brill says, "then we'd have to figure out a way to change the partnership."
Brill has resisted outside influence on editorial decisions in the past. Vanity Fair last year reported that Brill had been pressured once by Time Warner's chief financial officer Richard Bressler to spike a story slated for Corporate Control Alert, a newsletter published by American Lawyer Media. According to memos written by Brill and obtained by Vanity Fair, Bressler was concerned that the appearance of the story about an official of the Federal Trade Commission would jeopardize the pending Time Warner-Turner merger. Brill ran the story and complained to Levin about the attempted interference.
Now the media and other media watchdogs are alert for any whiff of conflict in Brill's operation. A newspaper column weeks ago questioned his plans to share stories with NBC's "Dateline." Brill promptly scuttled the deal. The day after "Pressgate" erupted, Brill was compelled to acknowledge that he had contributed $2,000 to Clinton's re-election campaign in 1996 and $4,000 to Democratic congressional candidates.
"I should have" disclosed the contributions, Brill says. Because he has written or published articles in the past that are clearly unfavorable to a liberal or Democratic position, he says, he didn't consider that his reporting would be considered tainted by political bias.
A Washington Post story about Brill's failure to disclose included a disclosure by the writer, media critic Howard Kurtz, acknowledging that he will be an occasional free-lance contributor to Content. Kurtz has a piece in the first issue about reportorial lapses by "60 Minutes" in pursuing an interview with former White House aide Kathleen Willey.
"The problem with the whole media world is it can be incredibly incestuous," says Joel Kaplan, professor at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
Indeed. The New Yorker reported this week that among players in a recent softball game at Brill's home in Westchester County were CBS correspondent Paula Zahn, NBC News correspondent Dan Abrams and Time magazine managing editor Walter Isaacson. Among guests at the Content launch party in Manhattan this week were literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, portrayed as a conniving operator in "Pressgate," Morley Safer and Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes," Internet gossip hound Matt Drudge and Daily News editorial director Harold Evans.
All had come to drink to Brill, who stood with one foot planted on the inside, the other on the outside of a circle of mirrors.
Pub Date: 6/20/98