Is there any connection between $60,000 worth of tobacco ads in the December issue of Brill’s Content and a six-page article in the same issue that bashes the media for overstating the link between secondhand smoke and lung cancer?
Absolutely not, says Steve Brill, editor of Brill’s Content, who claims the infusion of tobacco money and his publication of a protobacco article are “a total coincidence.” Brill, who is also the magazine’s top business executive, says he follows a simple principle: “We run the stories we think we should run, without regard to who the advertisers are.” (The article was accompanied by an equivocating editor’s note explaining that the magazine welcomes tobacco ads—as does the Voice—although smoking causes cancer.)
Brill denies that anyone from his advertising department tried to solicit ads by tipping off tobacco companies to the secondhand smoke article. If anyone had done so, he says, “They’d be fired instantly.” Besides, his advertising people “don’t know the stories that are coming down the pike. They’re not allowed to go look at stuff that’s posted on the wall in the art department.”
The $60,000 December bonus came in the form of four pages from Philip Morris (two pages for Marlboro cigarettes and two pages describing Philip Morris’s charitable activities), plus two more from R.J. Reynolds. The ads were placed in September, when a full-page color ad cost $10,000. At the time, Brill says, “There is no way [the advertisers] would have known that story was appearing.”
Brill has not had an easy time attracting advertisers, in part because of his commitment to hard-hitting stories, and tobacco ads in particular have been sparse. The December issue not only represents a doubling of tobacco ads, it introduces the first Marlboro ad—suggesting increased interest from Philip Morris.
There has been a longstanding controversy over the coverage of secondhand smoke. It stems from a 1993 report by the Environmental Protection Agency, which declared a strong link between secondhand smoke and lung cancer. In 1994, after Forbes MediaCritic published an exposé of the flaws in the EPA report, Philip Morris reprinted the article as an ad in several newspapers. Its author, Reason magazine editor Jacob Sullum, was not paid by Philip Morris, but he accepted $5000 from R.J. Reynolds for a reprint of another story. Sullum says he now regrets taking the money, because some critics use the payment to discredit his work, rather than assessing it on the merits.
In his 1997 Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Ashes to Ashes, author Richard Kluger wrote that the “case against the EPA findings was most expansively and persuasively
argued… by Jacob Sullum… who contended that the press had uncritically accepted the EPA indictment of [secondhand smoke].”
Last summer, a federal judge threw out the EPA report, blasting the underlying science. That decision prompted Brill senior writer Nicholas Varchaver to review the report and the media coverage. He says he requested information from several tobacco companies, including Philip Morris. Philip Morris declined to comment to the Voice.
Varchaver’s story is well-done, but, ironically, his diatribe against the media is so broadly argued that he downplays or omits some of the best journalism on the subject. “He does a good job of identifying the flaws in the report,” says John Schwartz, who covers science for the Washington Post, “but when he talks about nobody paying attention to the criticisms of the report, he’s wrong. There were plenty of stories in papers that he apparently did not read”—including several by Schwartz and others in the Washington Post.
Varchaver’s article does not mention Jacob Sullum until the last page. One paragraph credits Sullum as an early dissenter, the next repeats uncritically the charge that he is “a shill for the tobacco companies.”
For his part, Sullum praises Varchaver’s work and urges that it not be evaluated in light of the tobacco ads. “It’s heartening to me that they did the article,” he says.
Varchaver denies treating Sullum or Schwartz unfairly, given the volume of coverage he was assessing. He admits he downplayed Sullum, in part, because taking money from the tobacco industry detracts from one’s credibility. If that’s so, then it puts Brill in the same tank with Sullum—except that Brill got paid 12 times as much.
Matt Labash, a staff writer for the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, has made it a trademark of his journalism to infiltrate left-wing gatherings and ridicule them. So when Labash received an invitation to an election-night
party for medical marijuana supporters, he couldn’t resist. He called the Marijuana Policy Project, the D.C.–based lobbying group that was hosting the party, and talked to MPP director of communications Chuck Thomas.
“Will we see people smoking pot there?” asked Labash.
“No one will be smoking pot,” Thomas recalls telling him, “but we can introduce you to patients who use it for medical purposes, if you need a photo.”
The night of November 3, some 200 people attended the MPP party at Food for Thought, a bar-restaurant near Dupont Circle. The mood was festive, as exit polls were indicating strong voter support for medical marijuana referenda in Washington, D.C., and several states. Around 11:30, as party goers were drinking, dancing, and watching election returns on TV, Labash arrived with David Bass, the deputy publisher of The Weekly Standard, and ordered a couple of beers.
MPP volunteer Whitney Painter approached the two men, who stood out with their slicked hair and suits. After a few minutes, she says, she realized “they were on a mission. All they wanted to know was, could I buy pot for them, did someone there have some, how much did I smoke. I said, ‘You’re not going to find any marijuana here. That’s not what this is about. It’s about sick people going to prison.'”
Painter steered Bass and Labash to Chuck Thomas, whose account of the interview follows. One of the two said, “You said there would be people with pot here. How can we go about getting some?”
Thomas explained that the law had not yet gone into effect, but that when it did, marijuana would be available to people who were seriously ill and had a doctor’s recommendation.
One of the reporters said, “But we listen to Cypress Hill! We watch Cheech and Chong! How can we get some pot?”
Thomas answered, “If you have concerns about medical marijuana, tell me what they are, and I’ll try to address them.”
Then Labash said, “Dave likes to smoke pot,” upon which Bass gave Labash a stern look. Labash said, “But Dave, you’ve smoked in front of me.” Labash was probably joking, but Thomas did not like being mocked. “I’ve done hundreds of interviews,” he says, “and this was the weirdest ever. They were asking tabloid-quality questions, really just fishing and not catching anything.”
After midnight, the two journalists continued to buttonhole party goers. After about 10 people complained to MPP executive director Robert Kampia that they were being asked for pot, he decided to put an end to it. His account follows. Kampia walked up to Bass and Labash mid interview, saying, “Have you asked anyone here for marijuana, in any way, shape, or form?”
“No,” said one.
“Sort of,” said the other.
“That’s it!” Kampia said. “You’re out of here!”
“We’re the media,” said one. “You can’t tell us to leave!”
According to one observer, David Bass puffed up his chest and joked that he was a marine. Then a rumble broke out, as Kampia grabbed Bass by the lapels and pushed him. “His beer went flying, his friend lunged at me, and all kinds of Marijuana Policy Project people dived in the middle,” recalls Kampia. When the dust cleared, the two reporters were gone.
Thomas and Kampia are still fuming about the incident, which they recounted to the Washington Post, to no avail. “It didn’t occur to them that any of us could be sincere,” says Kampia. “They were sure this was a facade so we could deal drugs in the back room, rather than a legitimate political issue.”
Labash calls the story ludicrous. “I may have jokingly inquired about the propensity of medical marijuana activists to use marijuana at their medical marijuana party, but in absolutely no way did I attempt to procure marijuana, medical or otherwise,” he says. The November 16 Weekly Standard ran a series of election-night vignettes, but not a word about the party at Food for Thought.
Just before Thanksgiving, as New Yorker editors sent Kurt Andersen’s uninspired profile of Tom Hanks to press, that magazine’s publicity department spotted two news bites to use as bait for its press release (in case you haven’t heard, Hanks regrets giving money to President Clinton and has toyed with the idea of running for office). A week later, just days after the magazine hit the stands, the press release yielded miles of publicity. Monday, November 30: the New York Post splashes the Hanks story across the front page (“H’WOOD HERO DUMPS ON PREZ”). Monday night: Camera crews descend on Hanks at a Manhattan gala to record his “backpedaling” remarks. Tuesday, December 1: NY1 runs footage of Hanks joking, “No more interviews for The New Yorker,” the Post and the Daily News run inside stories on the backpedaling, and The New York Times struggles to catch up by reprinting Sunday’s AP story (“FOR A NOTED CLINTON DONOR, SECOND THOUGHTS”). Wednesday, December 2: the Times‘s Maureen Dowd weighs in with an endorsement of President Hanks, enabling New Yorker editor David Remnick to declare a PR victory. But did anyone actually read the story?
Research: Andrew Tutino