Wolves in Sheep's Clothing

The Journalists Who Would Be CEO

 Autumn of the Moguls, the new book by media columnist Michael Wolff, serves as a useful if uncritical guide to the phenomenon of what might be called "journalist entrepreneurs." JE's are not just journalists, Wolff explains, but "players in the media business, working the levers of associations and finance and business theory." There is a skill set that allows some journos to walk through walls from the editorial to the business side, and you don't learn it at J-school. It turns out those same conjuring skills can land you in office. Thus, Michael Bloomberg became mayor not because he deserved it but because he succeeded in getting the media to treat him seriously. Ditto Schwarzenegger.

The slickest of the JEs manage to maintain editorial cachet after repeated spins through the revolving door. Thus Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, partnered with Harvey Weinstein to launch a doomed magazine (Talk), and is now writing a newspaper column. Kurt Andersen, a founding editor of Spy, had barely finished a novel about a hustling TV producer when he raised the capital to launch Inside.com—and is now a novelist again. Wolff's book had just hit the bookstores when he emerged as a potential bidder for New York, where he hopes to remain a writer.

Some JEs are unambivalent capitalists, such as Steve Rattner, a New York Times reporter who became an investment banker and never looked back. But Wolff says many are "people like me who are just trying to get more control over their own media lives. Although it looks like I'm trying to be a mogul, I'm trying to escape from moguls," by trying to preserve New York and his influence there. "I don't want to get away from being a writer," he told me. "It's the only thing I've ever done with any kind of success!"

Perhaps the grandest of the JEs is Steven Brill. He has done it all: Brill wrote for New York and Esquire before launching American Lawyer and Court TV, then reinvented himself as the chairman and CEO of a company that published Brill's Content, a media watchdog magazine. But Content sputtered after Brill partnered with big media companies, and his dotcoms did not last. After 9-11, he emerged with a Newsweek column and a contract from Simon & Schuster to write a book on homeland security.

Brill's book, After: The Rebuilding and Defending of America in the September 12 Era, was published last spring to rave reviews. Here was proof that after all his years as a CEO, Brill remained a thorough and compelling reporter. But prestige was not enough. Last week, he announced that he is jumping into the homeland security business.

According to the hype, Brill's "Verified Identity Card," or V-ID, will fight terrorism while making life easier for frequent fliers. Volunteers will pay an initial fee and low monthly charge, be thumbprinted, and be put through a background check. Those who pass will be whisked to a special line at the airport, where they will swipe the card through a machine while their bags go through a metal detector.

Brill foreshadowed his latest business venture in the book: His epilogue sings the praises of a highly secure ID card that could be introduced by the private sector. There's no law that says an author can't promote a product before it enters the market and then enter a partnership with the developers—but this looks like a conflict of interest. Shouldn't Brill's book have noted that he might have a financial stake in the product?

In an interview, Brill said that he had already addressed the potential conflict in a December 30, 2002, Newsweek column, in which he called the concept of a voluntary ID card "so logical that . . . I am tempted to try launching it myself." He did not mention the potential conflict in After, he says, because he was "rushing to crash the book," which went to press in mid January.

The V-ID press release introduces Brill's partners, including ChoicePoint, which is described as "the nation's preeminent provider of identity verification and background screening services." What the release doesn't say is that ChoicePoint claims to have 10 billion records on companies and individuals, which it routinely provides to the FBI, IRS, and other federal agencies. Earlier this year, the company caught flak for selling the personal records of more than 300 million Latin Americans to the Justice Department. In 2000, ChoicePoint purchased Database Technologies (DBT), the company that had scrubbed the Florida voter rolls before the presidential election—and just happened to knock off some eligible Democrats.

Even without the involvement of ChoicePoint, the notion of a national ID card is controversial. While its legitimate goal is to prevent terrorists from operating under false identities, opponents say it will speed up the loss of privacy to a government that already controls vast data banks of information on its citizens. In a preemptive move, Brill said he will ask an independent group to monitor V-ID's privacy standards. But the ombud idea seems far-fetched. "Which credible privacy organization would tie into this?" asks Nat Hentoff. "I can't imagine most of them even thinking about it."

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