If Steven Brill's object is to make the media look absurd, he got off to a roaring start. On the front page of the New York Times last Sunday was a story that said the first issue of Brill's Content would report that Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr had leaked information about his investigation to the press--including the Times. Now if the question of whether Starr leaks to the Times is important enough for the front page, you might wonder why the Times needed Brill to raise the subject. And who knows better than the Times whether Starr leaked to the Times? Yet the Times cites Brill and then cites its own Washington editor, Michael Oreskes, saying the Times does not discuss its sources. And all this contortion was induced by Brill's having leaked his own forthcoming article to the Times.
But if Brill's goal is to offer a socially useful critique of media misbehavior, he is doing less well. There are two problems with Brill's Content. The first is that though the editor seems to envision a magazine that will hold the press accountable to a wider public, he has created one that is unlikely to interest anyone outside the media. The second problem is that though Brill deserves a Pulitzer for self-righteousness, he simply isn't a careful enough journalist himself to be criticizing others.
Let's start with the magazine. After hearing it disputed for so many days, potential readers will be fooled into thinking something scintillating is going on. In fact, what will strike most people when they finally get their hands on Brill's Content is how boring it is. Dullness is a problem for media magazines in general, the prototype being the ever worthy, always soporific Columbia Journalism Review. CJR is filled with articles you'd say only people in the business could possibly want to read, except that they're too mundane even for people in the business. "New Guild contract at the Milwaukee Sentinel" is the sort of thing CJR does. You will find praise for that five-part series on Pennsylvania's neglected infrastructure, and a spank for local TV news directors who can't seem to put anything but crime on the air.
Brill is hoping for an audience beyond the industry, but most of his magazine--the first issue, anyhow--amounts to little more than CJR on steroids. There's a long feature lauding the New York Times for its fine reporting on mismanagement at the Columbia/HCA health care conglomerate, and another rapping 60 Minutes for a flawed story--aired 10 years ago--on alleged spontaneous acceleration in Audis. There's a "Heroes" column about the reporter at Chicago magazine who exposed the Beardstown Ladies for inflating the returns of their investment club. Seems he had to go in for sinus surgery the day the Wall Street Journal picked up his scoop. Crazy ... If I were a better person, perhaps I would read stories like this through to the end.
What is pernicious is Brill's attitude that he's the only guy in the world with the guts to point out other people's mistakes. His maximum opus on the first three weeks of Monica Lewinsky scandal coverage is intended to be a devastating case study of media malpractice. This 24,000 word story charges reporters with just about every sin in the book, and commits most of them itself. Here are 10 journalistic no-nos that stand out in Brill's piece:
1) Overhyping to the Point of Dishonesty
Brill contends the press has allowed itself to be used by Starr to make Clinton look guilty. But to prove that Starr has leaked grand jury information to the media--which, by the way, Brill doesn't do--is not to demonstrate that journalists have been irresponsible. By my reading, Brill does not document a single error of fact made in the national publications he analyzes--the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, and Newsweek--and he presents only a few cases in which any of them even misplayed a story in a significant way. He ignores the tough coverage Starr has received. To conclude, as Brill does, that the press is now "an institution being corrupted to its core" wildly overreaches the evidence he presents.
Susan Schmidt, a Washington Post reporter, claims she did not tell Brill that she "heard from Starr's office something about Vernon Jordan and coaching a witness." The quote is damaging because it implies Schmidt revealed the identity of an anonymous source. For another example from a nonjournalist who claims plausibly to have been misquoted by Brill, see "Chatterbox." We cannot know for sure who is right, because Brill did not tape-record his interviews.