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 Esquirebefore 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 Contentsputtered 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, Newsweekcolumn, 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."

Brill's book offers some clues to the origins of the V-ID card. Soon after 9-11, he wrote, the Department of Homeland Security rejected the idea of a government-issued ID card because it would be opposed by libertarians in the GOP. Two options surfaced: a driver's license that would be linked to government databases (later nixed), and the project now under development at the Transportation Security Administration, which will subject all airline passengers to a mandatory background check. By the spring of 2002, Brill reported, airline industry CEOs were lobbying heavily for the TSA to set up some kind of "trusted traveler" program as a supplement to the mandatory background check.

It's obvious why the airline industry supports such a card, but less obvious to a reader why Brill endorsed the concept in his book. In the epilogue to After, he proposes a security measure for locations likely to be targeted by terrorists: It would be "a system based on some kind of credible but voluntary nationally accepted identification card. . . . The [ID card] need not be a government program. . . . Reliable [ID cards] could be issued by private companies," and so on.

The book does not mention that in October 2002, the Atlanta Business Chronicle reported that ChoicePoint was deep in talks with Homeland Security and the TSA about developing the technology for the voluntary ID card. Asked about this, Brill first responded, "ChoicePoint was never in talks with anyone in the government about running such a project, or if they were, I was never aware of it." When presented with the article, he said, "I was not aware of this clip, and I was more aware than anyone on the planet of what TSA was doing at the time—which was talking to all the data miners about this."

According to Brill, he began talking to prospective partners in February 2003, first met with Choice-Point in April, and decided to sign on a few months ago, whereupon he resigned from his gig at Newsweek. As for ChoicePoint, he says, "I checked them out very carefully." Indeed, Brill is so confident that the V-ID will fly that he predicts, "In six months, I could get Nat Hentoff to be my ombudsman."


cc@villagevoice.com

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