Going After the Media
VTR Date: December 3, 1997
Guest: Brill, Steven
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Steven Brill
Title: Steven Brill… Going After the Media
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
Years ago, when my guest today first joined me here, I thought this rather puckish character sort of preened when I asked whether he didn’t very much enjoy his reputation as Peck’s Bad Boy. Steven Brill certainly deserved that reputation when he was first needling the legal community with what turned out to be his brilliantly successful — and often disrespectful — “American Lawyer” publications. He fostered that reputation further when he lobbied for cameras in the courts, making them, in the estimation of many of us, into as much a commercial entertainment as an information medium.
And now, as Mr. Brill writes in a pitch for Content, his newest journalistic venture, he is training his sights, quote, “On an even more significant industry, and, remarkably, one that’s even less covered by the media. Because the industry is the media itself.” He touts Content as finally, quote, “A magazine that treats the exploding world of information and entertainment with the candor, independence, and concern for standards the subject demands!”
Well, I admit to amused indifference when my guest first went after the practitioners of what he called “the nation’s most important but least covered industries: the legal profession.” I was appalled, however, and remain appalled, when he made our courts, too, into a commercial entertainment.
But at this point I’m quite taken when Mr. Brill writes, quote, “Consider this. Now that we’ve finally learned to pay attention to the quality of the food we put in our bodies, isn’t it time to pay attention to the quality of the information we put in our minds?” So, let me begin by asking my guest today to elaborate on that quite intriguing query. Tell us more about this publication.
BRILL: I think it’s clear that we’re living in the Information Age, and we’re going to be living in that age more so as we go into the next millennium. And it just seems to me that that is an age that needs its own magazine; a magazine that deals with media, with journalism, with nonfiction information from the standpoint of those who consume it, and those who read it, watch it, log onto it, and tells people in what you and I know is a very confusing world of infotainment, entertainment journals and advertorials, editorials, websites sponsored by advertisers, websites that aren’t sponsored by advertisers, that tells people who are bombarded by all that stuff what’s behind it, who’s behind it, how it’s made, what they can rely on, and what they shouldn’t rely on.
HEFFNER: What did you achieve with The American Lawyer that you hope to achieve now with Content?
BRILL: Well, the perspective I had a long time ago standing in front of the placement office bulletin board at the Yale Law School, where there were all these recruiting letters from law firms, basically all saying the same thing; they were the same kinds of firms doing the same kinds of things, and trying to get young law students like me (with me they didn’t succeed, but they sure did with most other people) to come to work for them, the perspective I had was that these very powerful institutions were basically anonymous. No one really knew who they were and what they were doing. And I always thought that it mattered who the people were behind any story, and who the institutions were behind any story; that it mattered that someone had decided to take on the case of Brown versus Board of Education, and just that it mattered who the lawyers were behind the tobacco companies and who the lawyers were who were going after the tobacco companies. And what The American Lawyer did was to look at the practice of law from the standpoint of those who were doing it, stripped away the anonymity, made them more accountable, and also looked at it from the standpoint of the law as a business. Most lawyers, the truth is, don’t volunteer for what they do; they get paid for it. Which isn’t wrong. It’s not wrong at all. But some of them do much better than others. And from the standpoint of the marketplace what The American Lawyer did was really tell the truth about that marketplace: who was doing well, who wasn’t, and how come.
HEFFNER: And now you’re going to do the same thing about the press, print and electronic, I gather.
BRILL: Print, electronic, everything in between. Everything from The Jerry Springer Show to this show, assuming there’s a big gap there, and everything on the print side from financial newsletters to teen magazines. Anything that purports to be nonfiction, our first point of departure is going to be to ask the question, “Is it nonfiction?” If someone writes a celebrity autobiography, is it an autobiography? Is it really true? We’re going to give scrutiny to everything, and finally hold reporters accountable in the way that they delight in holding everybody else accountable.
HEFFNER: Well, you know, it’s interesting, when you say, “The way they delight in holding everybody else accountable.” Hasn’t one of the major criticisms of the content of media today been that involvement with personalities behind the scenes, the sort of thing you say you’re going to do with…
BRILL: Well, personalities, the criticism — and it’s good criticism — is that there’s a fixation on, you know, Marv Albert as a story as opposed to, you know, as opposed to nuclear proliferation as a story. And that’s exactly right. But the fact is that there should be an appropriate fixation on people who are responsible for things. If someone makes a mistake as a reporter, they should get the credit for making that mistake that they get when they get their byline when they write the story.
We always had a policy, as I think you know, at The American Lawyer and at Court TV and at all of our related publications of actively soliciting mistakes. We wanted to know when we made a mistake. We aggressively investigated any complaints, and we aggressively made corrections. We had a rule that the correction always had to be made as prominently as the mistake. If we made a mistake on the front page of any of our newspapers, or even on the cover of the magazine, that’s where we corrected the mistake. And we named the person, the reporter, who made the mistake. Now, when I first announced this policy at a big staff meeting of all of our newspaper reporters from around the country and the magazine, the questions I got from the assembled group, or one of the complaints I got was, “This is going to ruin morale. This is going to embarrass people.” And I said, “Well, we’re in the business of embarrassing people. Why shouldn’t we be embarrassed if we make a mistake?” And, in the end, I think it’s fair to say our staff felt proud of having that policy, felt proud of saying that, you know, “We hold ourselves to the standards that we think we’re going around holding everybody else to.”
The rest of the media doesn’t have a policy like that. With Court TV we solicited comments and complaints on the air with two or three 30-second spots every day. And people could call me, write to me. We made corrections on the air all the time. There isn’t a television network that does that. If you ask the, you know, the broadcast networks, they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, we correct things all the time.” And then you say, “Well, when’s the last time you made a correction on the evening news?” “Well, gee, I don’t know. I don’t remember. But we make them.” “When?” “Oh, two years ago.” “You haven’t made a mistake in the last two years?” I mean, that’s just patently absurd.
The fact is, with most media, the only time they even take a complaint seriously is if it comes on stationery from a lawyer. That if a citizen writes in, or someone who’s written about writes in, they don’t take it seriously unless they think they’re going to get sued, which is the exact wrong way that the media ought to handle those things.
HEFFNER: Will you say to your staff in the new magazine Content, as you did in The American Lawyer, “We’re in the business of embarrassing people.”
BRILL: Well, it’s a glib and accurate response to people who complain that something we do may embarrass them. But part of the business of a free press often is embarrassing people, whether it’s embarrassing Richard Nixon because he gets caught, you know, participating in the cover-up at Watergate or demanding IRS audits, or whether it’s embarrassing, you know, some Hollywood star for writing an autobiography that, A) isn’t autobiographical, and B) isn’t true. Part of that’s embarrassment. But, you know, one man’s embarrassment is another person’s accountability, is another person’s truth.
HEFFNER: What are you going to do about old fogeys like me…
BRILL: We won’t delight in it. I mean, we will have a fair amount, a large amount of what we will do (and you have sort of a dummy issue there in front of you and you can see it because it’s clear there) is finding the really good stuff that’s out there. And the big problem that I see, the frustration I have as a journalist, is that when we sent our reporters down to the courthouse in the O.J. Simpson trial to get a press card, they stood on line with everybody from The National Enquirer to Geraldo to, you know, all the tabloid shows, to everything in between. And everybody got a press card, which is exactly how it should be. The government, who gives out press cards, should not make distinctions, then should not say, “All right, you’re good, and you’re bad. You deserve a press card; you don’t, because we think you’re doing good stuff, and we think you’re doing bad stuff.” The government in this country shouldn’t and couldn’t do that. But someone ought to do it. And we’re going to take the first crack at doing it. But the process of doing it is not only finding the bad stuff; it’s finding and writing about all the good stuff. And there is a ton of good stuff.
For example, I mean, I happen to think (and this is just my taste), by and large, lately I think The New York Times is the best it’s ever been. And one of the stories we’ve assigned for one of our first issues is a story about a particularly good set of articles the Times has done in one area that really changed things.
So, it’s not simply, “These are all bad guys.” There are some really terrific people with real strong ideals working in an area where right now to everybody out there it’s all a blur.
HEFFNER: You like all of that pink paint on the front page, eh?
BRILL: No, I didn’t say I necessarily like the color. But I like the paper. I like most of the paper.
HEFFNER: Well, a couple of things about what you said. And let me go back to this question of embarrassing. You back away a little from that.
BRILL: No, I back away from the notion that that is the sole goal or the purpose of it. But the fact is that there is a very healthy aspect about embarrassing people. I mean, I think that, you know, that Jack Welch should’ve been embarrassed for the fact that NBC in New York on Channel 4 was responsible for The Jerry Springer Show. And, you know, Jack Welch is a wonderful guy. He’s the CEO of GE; he’s probably the best manager in the country, and I’m sure he’s a terrific person. But he should be kind of embarrassed by that, just the way people, you know, who sell products that we think are harmful should be embarrassed by it. There is a power in a democracy of embarrassment that can be very healthy.
HEFFNER: So you’re going to be doing the shame-on-you thing in Content?
BRILL: No, with a little more subtlety than that, I hope.
HEFFNER: Well, you say “a little more subtlety.” But isn’t that what led me, jokingly, I say, of course, because I don’t want any more of those Springer/Open Mind, “I don’t know the difference between them” comments…
BRILL: [Laughter] I didn’t say I didn’t know the difference.
HEFFNER: Isn’t that what led me to talk about you as Peck’s Bad Boy? Because I was not just quoting Peck’s Bad Boy, but putting together what a lot of people were saying about you.
HEFFNER: And you may say, “Fine.”
BRILL: Sure. I think that’s the work of any good journalist. That the result is often embarrassing people. And I just think that’s very healthy.
HEFFNER: Well, Lord knows we have enough people in the press who seem to feel that way today, because so much of what is printed is designed, I would think…
BRILL: Well, if that’s your sole purpose of waking up in the morning, is to… And it’s also, most of it, or much of it is mean-spirited, it’s misdirected, it’s embarrassing people…
HEFFNER: You’re going to embarrass people in good spirit.
BRILL: Well, it’s embarrassing people for the way they look, or embarrassing people for something having to do with their personal lives. And I just, that’s not my taste. I think that’s wrong. But I do think that, I mean, I’ll give you an example of, quote, “embarrassment.” This is from a couple of years ago. The Wall Street Journal announced in its, buried in the second section of the Journal one day was a story, the headline was, “Journal adjusts advertising rates.” “Adjusts” was the verb. And you read two or three paragraphs into the story and you realized The Wall Street Journal was raising its ad rates by five or six percent or something. Perfectly harmless, perfectly reasonable. And I cut it out and I sent it to all of our staff and all of our reporters at The American Lawyer.
HEFFNER: “Use this word from now on.” [Laughter]
BRILL: And I said, “Can you imagine The Wall Street Journal writing a story about General Motors or The New York Times or Proctor & Gamble where they’re raising their prices five to seven percent with the headline ”Proctor & Gamble adjusts prices’?” And, by the way, the space that “raises” and “adjusts,” you know, there’s no excuse that the headline, that the world wouldn’t fit. They were just, you know, someone was trying to soft-peddle what the Journal was doing in the Journal’s own pages. Totally harmless. This is not a great moral issue. It’s not, you know, these aren’t bad people doing bad things.
Now, if I were running this magazine then we would have a little box that would make fun of that, and that would embarrass them. That’s a good thing. They should be embarrassed by that, because it’s a great newspaper. Why are they screwing around with a great newspaper by, you know, by weaseling on that word for a totally harmless story?
HEFFNER: I do know, Steve, that though I raised the question of Peck’s Bad Boy at the beginning of The American Lawyer, I do know that you did many extremely important, very positive things. What are you going to do in Content that doesn’t come in, fall under the category of “embarrassment?”
BRILL: I’m not sure necessarily that I understand the distinction between important and embarrassment.
HEFFNER: Okay, I’ll…
BRILL: I mean, I assume, you know, if I were, you know, William Calley, I would’ve been embarrassed when Seymour Hirsch reported, you know, that I was, you know, executing babies in Vietnam. I don’t know, is that a bad story to have written because it embarrassed him?
HEFFNER: What will you be doing about Seymour Hirsch, newspaperman, writer today, in terms of the Kennedy…
BRILL: Oh, we would fact-check that book. If we were publishing today, we would do a full check of that book. Indeed, one of the things that I really want to do is… The most interesting thing to me about book reviews of nonfiction books is, very often — not so much in the Hirsh case, because it’s so controversial, but very often — the book review ignores the kind of basic question of, “Is this nonfiction book nonfiction?” It’s a book about… It’s reviewed about how well it’s written, how important the subject is, the writer’s take on the subject. But there is often very little attention paid to whether the thing is accurate or not. And that’s the way we would review books.
HEFFNER: Steve, let me ask, it’s a question in the sense I asked you before, come back to it: What did you achieve in The American Lawyer, something you would say, “I’m very proud of having achieved, of my magazine’s having achieved this” that you hope them to achieve in Content?
BRILL: Well, I think there’s a simple way to put it. I think what we did with The American Lawyer was we made the whole idea that lawyers, that the legal process isn’t just something that happens; it happens because lawyers do good things or do bad things, lawyers are energetic or they’re lazy, lawyers are honest or they’re dishonest. We basically demystified the legal profession, we explained how it happens. And Court TV, I think, did more of that for the public-at-large than The American Lawyer certainly did. We explain how it happens and, in the process, made the entire legal profession much more accountable. The American Lawyer, because it is mostly about business lawyering, big time corporate lawyering, made that aspect of the profession much more accountable and competitive in the marketplace. And every lawyer you talk to would tell you that.
Now, there is some bad aspects of that. When something goes from being a kind of gentlemen’s club to being a hotly competitive business, clients do better because they get better service at better prices, usually. But pro bono work sometimes gets thrown overboard. This is the work that lawyers do for free. Because they now, it’s tougher out there, they have to compete more. The law firm becomes less of a place where your friends are your partners, and more of a business where you’re trying to find the best people to serve your clients the best. That sounds bad until you realize that what it used to mean was a place where you had your friends work, the big time law firms, many of them in New York and elsewhere, weren’t open to women, weren’t open to Jews, certainly weren’t open to non-whites. They’re still not very much open to non-whites, but they certainly are open to women and to people of all religions. But basically the profession was opened up and made, and people understood how it worked, and consumers were able to, in effect, be better consumers.
If you take that and transfer it to the world of nonfiction media, by opening it up, by explaining how something happens, consumers will be smarter consumers. What do I mean by that? If we do a story that explains how a certain talk show on one of the networks books people, the deals they make or don’t make, the questions they promise not to ask, or that they subtly imply they’re not going to ask, the more we do things like that, the more we explain which websites are actually tied to advertisers in ways that are very hard to understand, the smarter we make consumers. And, to come back to the embarrassment question, most people in the world want to do the right thing, and most people in the world especially want to do the right thing if they’re going to be embarrassed by doing the wrong thing. And if they sort of think we’re out there…
HEFFNER: That’s nobility in itself.
BRILL: Well, but it is true. It is definitely true. And I think one of the, you know, one of the benefits of having a magazine that’s aggressive, that is covering the whole waterfront with lots of very skilled reporters is that the people in the news business are going to know that we’re there and that we’re going to have sources, and that we’re going to find out this stuff.
HEFFNER: Steve, the lawyers had very little to do about letting you survive. You could outside of their largesse. And you did more than that. How do you think your colleagues in the press are going to receive Content?
BRILL: I, you know, it’s a funny thing. I think that the real, there’s a reaction I’ve been getting to this idea from people out there. And some of it, you know, they’re just telling me what I want to hear. But some of it is really genuine, which is that the real professionals in the business, the real people who care about journalism, I think, love the idea of this magazine, because, again, we’re going to separate the wheat from the chaff. And they want to be recognized. And they went into their profession for the same reason I’m doing this, which is, yeah, they want to do well and they want to be successful and they want to make money, but they also care about what they’re doing, and they feel that everything’s been blurred, that there’s no, the only recognition given out there to journalists is fame. If you get on the most talk shows, you can make the most money, and you seem to be the most successful person. If you’re doing, you know, a TV magazine show that’s at the top of the television world, almost regardless of what the TV magazine show actually does. So I think, while there’s probably some fear and trembling, there’s also a lot of, you know, a lot of feeling that they’d kind of like to see this.
HEFFNER: Now, your assumption…
BRILL: And frankly, if they don’t, it’s, you know… They’ll learn to love it.
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
BRILL: They’ll get used to it. Because we’re not going to go away. I mean, we don’t depend on, you know, the kindness of the people we’re writing about.
HEFFNER: What will you depend upon?
BRILL: We’ll depend on having people buy the magazine and read it. If people, if good, intelligent people buy this magazine because they want an independent view of all the media out there, we’ll have a large audience, and that means we’ll have a very good advertising base and a very good circulation base, and therefore we’ll have a good business.
HEFFNER: Do you have to make the assumption that the more salacious the magazine, the larger the circulation?
BRILL: No. I actually think it’s the opposite.
HEFFNER: Tell me about that.
BRILL: Well, we did some focus groups after we, we did a direct mail test in the fall, and we got a fantastic response, a really terrific response from a wide range of mailing lists that we mailed to. And the mailing lists we mailed to were people who were not in the media business, because we knew we’d get subscriptions from people in the business; we want, you know, civilians. And then we did focus groups with some of the people who had responded to the mailing, to find out why they responded. And we put in front of them the dummy issue that we had mocked up, which you have there, to let them look at it. And the stuff they didn’t like — these are the people who responded; these are our customers — the stuff they didn’t like were the design elements in there that were kind of loud and had loud colors, and that were, had the tone that was, shall we say, much more aggressive. They responded to this because they want a serious, independent publication that’s going to tell them the truth and that’s not going to try to be flashy and sell them, you know, something the same way everyone else is trying to sell them something. And that’s really what we learned from the focus groups, was to tone it down.
HEFFNER: Now, you put a premium upon forthrightness in the press. Let me ask you a question. How much, how long should we give this magazine before we can say it’s a success or it isn’t?
BRILL: Oh, I think that’s a… This is a very ambitious effort to start a consumer magazine with what, by definition, has to be a free-standing, independent company that can’t be tied to any other media company because it’s going to be writing about all of them. It’s going to take, my business plan says that it’s going to take four and a half years to break even. And it’ll have ups and downs along the way. I mean, I can promise you that, the day the first issue is published, I’ll think it’s the greatest thing since Gutenberg. And I can also promise you that the day the second issue is published I’ll be going around hunting for copies of the first issue to destroy them because I’ll think it’s so terrible because I’ll think the second issue is so much better than the first issue. And I hope I think the same about the third issue, and I hope five years later I think the same about all the issues in the first four years. This is a long process. That’s the way I do things, as you know. It’s not a quick scheme. This is a long haul to build up a brand name for independence and for credibility and for quality, and that’s the way I’m making the investment myself with some partners, for the long haul.
HEFFNER: Steve Brill, I wish you well. I think.
HEFFNER: It depends upon what you write about The Open Mind and Jerry Springer.
HEFFNER: Stay around. I want to talk to you about one of your other projects, cameras in the courts. But I want more about this. Are you willing to?
BRILL: Sure. Happy to.
Steve Brill, thank you for joining me on The Open Mind today.
And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again too; join us next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.
Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.