Take a moment to pity Howard Kurtz. It’s always been difficult for The Washington Post media reporter (and author of the recent bestselling Spin Cycle) to write about spats inside his own paper. But to cover charges of improper reporting leveled at his employer (the Post) released this weekend by the magazine that has made him a star freelancer (Brill’s Content)…well, that seems like an impossible assignment.
Indeed, when Kurtz announced in January that he would be writing for Content, he pledged to refrain from reporting on Steven Brill. “To avoid any potential conflicts, I won’t be covering him in the foreseeable future,” Kurtz told the Daily News.
It looks like the future is over. There was Kurtz, in Sunday’s Washington Post, writing about Brill’s charges that the Post–primarily through the work of Susan Schmidt–has screwed up the reporting of Ken Starr’s investigation.
So why is Kurtz now covering Content?
“It’s a fair question, and I only did it reluctantly,” Kurtz told the Voice Monday. “I went to the national desk on Friday, and said, ‘Here’s this story, we should cover it, and I feel I should be recused from it.'” The Post assigned him the story anyway. He ended up awkwardly in the middle of a dispute between his Content editor Brill and his colleague Schmidt, who insists that Brill’s 28-page article misquotes her.
“After this, I’m not going to write about Brill, I’m not going to write about Content–not forever, but for at least a year,” Kurtz said.
If this all seems like a mirror turned on a mirror turned on a mirror, well, welcome to the constantly regressive world of media criticism. The Kurtz dilemma–Am I covering the story? Am I part of the story? Am I both?–is a microcosm of the biggest journalistic challenge that Brill’s Content faces: namely, deciding whether it stands inside or outside the world of mass media.
There is no planet of outsider purity from which one can stick a lever, Archimedes-style, under the media world. But to function as a relatively clean referee, Brill’s magazine has to maintain a scrupulous distance from the crowd he’s reporting on.
This challenge has already tripped Brill up in a few places: last month, he pulled out of an arrangement he’d negotiated with Dateline NBC to give the newsmagazine first crack at some of Content‘s biggest stories. The problem, Brill acknowledged, was maintaining a ”perception” that the magazine could be independent from the network.
Using insiders to fund the magazine also opens Brill up to criticisms as serious as the ones he peddles. As USA Today noted last week, Barry Diller’s investment in Content is bound to raise questions about whether the magazine can fairly cover cable television. Brill has argued that that Diller is primarily involved in nonjournalistic cable holdings (USA Network, SciFi Channel, Home Shopping Network), and thus wouldn’t be covered by the magazine.
Brill told the Voice Monday that Diller and other minority partners “have no control over–not even the business side, let alone the editorial side.” Brill said he declined even to give Diller an advance copy of the magazine.
Still, in modern media, entertainment and news are inextricably wed, and in fact Diller’s name crops up in a story in Content‘s debut issue. (He is identified as “a minority investor in the partnership that owns this magazine.”) So how are readers supposed to be convinced that attacks on cable magnates in Content aren’t serving some covert Diller purpose?
Granted, Brill didn’t invent this conflict. For years, Columbia Journalism Review has been funded by Time Warner and The New York Times Foundation. So when, earlier this year, CJR published an exhaustive critical investigation of Rupert Murdoch’s media schemes, even appreciative readers had to wonder if they weren’t looking at one more salvo in Time Warner’s war with Murdoch.
To his credit, Brill has announced that longtime newsman Bill Kovach, now curator of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, will serve as the magazine’s ombudsman, keeping readers apprised of such conflicts. It’s impossible to say how well this device will work, since the first issue has nothing substantive from Kovach; the NBC flap didn’t meet the ombudsman threshold.
For whatever reason, Brill apparently doesn’t think that his agreement to have a dedicated area on America Online creates a “perception” problem. I think he’s wrong: the debut issue has a sharply detailed feature, entitled “Browser Beware,” about hidden advertising on Web search sites, but it’s folly to believe that the same story couldn’t be written about AOL.
Moreover, the “perception” of a less-than-pure relationship with AOL is already affecting Brill’s public relations: The New York Post has caught Brill’s staff posting messages on AOL’s Content site without identifying themselves as an internal cheerleading squad. Press Clips also recently received a widely distributed insider e-mail, offering a free AOL account in exchange for promising to post frequently on AOL’s Content site.
Brill’s need for such promo stroking is obvious: in order to achieve his utopian goal of 700,000 readers, the magazine needs the firepower that only mass media can provide. It’s hard to imagine that Brill’s Content is going to publish in-depth examinations of how the American media reports on, say, State Department conduct in sub-Saharan Africa, or federal pesticide policy, even though both topics potentially affect millions more people than does Whitewater or the murder of Jon Benet Ramsey.
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