Content's Providers

If it's going to grow, Content's content is bound to stick pretty closely to the handful of household media names and the stories already being covered to death in other outlets. As Tina Brown might say, it's the only way to generate buzz in sufficient numbers.

Playing inside mass media holds other traps for Brill, too. Almost by definition, people attracted to serious criticism of mass media--the kind of people likely to agree with Brill's sweeping assertion that the Starr-Lewinsky tale has "corrupted [the media] to its core"--perceive themselves as outsiders. Even Rush Limbaugh, with an audience of millions, knows enough to pose as an outsider when he bashes the media.

So far it looks like everybody associated with Content--Brill, Kurtz, former Time writer Michael Kramer, former FCC commissioner Reed Hundt, and former U.S. News & World Report editor Amy Bernstein--is a consummate insider. Monday's launch party at the Four Seasons--where Dan Rather, Harry Evans, Roger Ailes, and hundreds of others cavorted--absolutely screamed insider.

One of the few Content encounters with the outside was not promising. Having commissioned cartoonist Tom Tomorrow--whose syndicated strip This Modern World runs in the Voice--Content dismissed him after he submitted a single strip.

Tomorrow maintains that his Content editor killed the strip because ''Brill doesn't agree with it--which is pretty ironic, considering it was a strip about how a lot of media bias is the bias of owners,'' Tomorrow told the Voice. Content editorial director Michael Kramer, for his part, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that "We just didn't like the strip," which Tomorrow says is ''very disingenuous," because for several months all the Content people had told him was that they thought his work was ''brilliant.''

The problem probably isn't Tom Tomorrow's left-wing politics as much as the fact that he has politics at all--and this is a key area where the largely depoliticized Content misreads its target audience. Yes, opinion polls show mass dissatisfaction with American media: something on the order of 100 million people say they don't trust what they read and see. Break down those numbers, however, and you'll find little consensus about what exactly is wrong with the press. In my experience, people dissatisfied with media tend to cluster around ideological, moral, and even demographic prejudices (e.g., the media doesn't represent enough people like me). They like their media criticism to confirm those prejudices; neutral reporting leaves them, um, neutral. Besides, there's plenty of news on media available to those who want it (most of the criticisms made in Brill's Lewinsky opus, for example, have already been published elsewhere).

So if Brill sends direct mail promising to "Make the Media Accountable" to readers of The American Spectator and The Nation, he may well get a good response, since each camp distrusts the press. But if he produces a magazine that doesn't stroke the fur of both--and who could?--he's unlikely to hold on to them.

All that said, and allowing for the inevitable staleness of any magazine's first issue, there's a lot to pore over in Content. A feature called "Lynched" promises to deliver a regular "Autopsy of a Press Victim"; the mag will apparently provide steady, critical coverage of business news, a desperately overdue category; and both layout and tone are light years ahead of those in traditional journalism reviews.

What happens if this considerable effort doesn't bring about more media accountability? "I don't know," Brill confessed to the Voice. "You write the stories every week and ask yourself that. Maybe they change, maybe they don't, that's not your department, but at least you've brought some kind of truth to the surface."

A footnote: conservatives spent the weekend fulminating that Brill's attack on Starr's media coziness was orchestrated by the White House--a charge certainly supported by the televised plug that Clinton gave the mag at the White House Correspondents Dinner. In that vein, it's worth noting that in the introduction to Brill's classic 1978 book The Teamsters, he singles out one pal in particular who "reviewed the full maunscript and provided critically important advice." That chum: Samuel Berger, who, with Brill, worked in Mayor Lindsay's office way back when. Berger, of course, now serves as Clinton's national security advisor.

Research: Leila Abboud

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