Now Is the Summer of Too Much Content

Now Is the Summer of Too Much Content

Now Is the Summer of Too Much Content

Policy made plain.
June 20 1998 3:30 AM

Now Is the Summer of Too Much Content

Now is the summer of too much content.

Now Is the Summer of Too Much Content

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Steven Brill complains implausibly that the press doesn't pay enough attention to itself. The enormous attention devoted to the premiere of his magazine of press criticism, Brill's Content, somewhat undermines the magazine's founding premise. That subtlety shouldn't cause him too much distress, because the press's fascination with itself is a bonanza for its self-proclaimed scourge. Do not look for articles in Brill's Content exposing how the media were enslaved by Steve Brill (like the article in the premier issue exposing the media's alleged enslavement by Kenneth Starr). No, if Brill's Content, he has every reason to be.

Far be it from Slate, of course, to complain about a ludicrous excess of publicity attending the arrival of a new magazine. We've been there too. And we're embarrassed to say that the current issue of Slate does nothing to alleviate the symptoms of Brill Overkill. Brill, Brill's Content, and the contents of Brill's Content have been at least touched upon during the last few days in the following Slate departments: "Today's Papers," "The Week/The Spin," "In Other Magazines" (of course), "Chatterbox ," "Pundit Central," "Explainer," "The Breakfast Table," and "Strange Bedfellow." Oh--and "Readme." Every aspect of the phenomenon has been summarized, analyzed, criticized. We feel this has been a useful trial run for future Slate coverage of the outbreak of a major war.

Slate's coverage of Brillorama is not wildly consistent. Jacob Weisberg accuses Brill of breaking the basic rules of journalism. William Saletan accuses him of cleverly obeying those rules while offending journalistic ethical values all the same. Weisberg and Seth Stevenson disagree about whether the magazine's central failure is boredom or sanctimoniousness. Susan Estrich asserts that Brill's big scoop is no big deal, while around her we analyze it in detail (scroll past David Brooks' posting to read hers).

Still, the overall "take" of all our coverage is fairly negative. That is not intentional. Perhaps Brill's Content will devote a future article to explaining why it so often just seems to turn out that way. We have nothing against Brill's Content. In fact, we wish it well. And no publication should be judged irrevocably based on its first issue. Basically--let's be blunt--we'll do or say whatever it takes to be on good terms with journalism's growliest attack dog. (Good doggie! Down, boy! Stevie wanna biscuit?) And if it means having all the writers who criticize him this week killed--why, consider it done. It's just a small gesture from Slate to help the world's leading press critic do his job of ensuring the highest standards of honesty, accuracy, and freedom of thought in the press.

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The truth is that Brill's reputation as an attack dog--cherished above all by Brill himself--is not completely deserved. At his previous publication, American Lawyer, he more or less invented a genre of article that might be called the puff piece in the form of a hatchet job. A typical American Lawyer article might reveal that Attorney X is a mean, nasty, unscrupulous son of a bitch who'll do anything to win a case. Attorney X's business would soar, as would his self-esteem. American Lawyer's famous exposés of top lawyers' salaries, Brill's indignant editorials about overlavish summer intern programs (accompanying complex charts that compared the number of opera tickets and restaurant dinners offered by various firms) ... all had the natural effect of increasing the excesses he complained about.

Overall, by the very attention it devotes--the breathless prose, the endlessness of the articles, the huge photos of men in suits standing in front of shelves of books--American Lawyer has made the law seem more important and even glamorized it. Now Brill's Content will do the same for the media (where we already suspect we might be glamorous). He will flatter us by the very standards he accuses us of failing to meet, by turning our peccadilloes into moral crises, by the very gloss on his publication that's all about us, and above all by giving us an excuse once a month to write about ourselves.

So good luck, Steve, and let us know if there's anything we can do. Some software, perhaps? Fresh salmon? Straight cash? Nothing's too good for the guy who's gonna make us journalists take a long look in the mirror.

Behind Enemy Lines

Starting early next week, Michael Lewis' "Millionerds" column will join Chatterbox, The Breakfast Table, and other Slate features that post constantly but irregularly, whenever the author(s) are struck with an insight or acquire a nice tidbit of info. Michael will be filing from Silicon Valley two to three times a week. Check it out.

--Michael Kinsley