Note: This piece was written on assignment and delivered on Feb. 22, 2000, for the May 2000 issue of Brill's Content magazine, but was killed by the editors.
Why You Shouldn't Trust this Magazine
The parent company of Brill's Content is launching an Internet business with several of the media corporations it covers, including NBC and CBS. The business will earn its money by selling you magazine subscriptions, books and other media products it recommends, including titles owned by new partners such as Primedia. The web site and magazine will have the same editor, the same CEO, the same office space and some of the same content, according to company statements.
It's like Ralph Nader starting an e-commerce venture with Chevrolet to sell used Corvairs. It's like Consumer Reports launching a web site with Procter & Gamble. It's like the Los Angeles Times/Staples Center fiasco, except much, much worse -- the Times is not a self-styled watchdog of the sports arena industry, the Times publisher doesn't edit every article in the newspaper; and the infamous revenue-sharing arrangement that tainted the "Staples Center Issue" of the L.A. Times Magazine was a one-time affair, not a fundamental business model.
The creation of "Contentville.com" exudes such breathtaking hypocrisy, and poses such a stone-obvious conflict of interest, it seems almost redundant to say so. Yet judging by the petulant fashion in which Steven Brill and new editor in chief David Kuhn have defended this "Big Blur," the exercise seems necessary.
"People wonder how we can cover the media companies that have invested in us," Kuhn was quoted as saying in Mediaweek. "Well, 1) they're separate companies, and they don't OWN us, so they can't exert that kind of pressure, and 2) it's a ridiculous charge, because every important publication is now in business with other media companies, starting with The NY Times. It's a non-issue if you have the right editorial people running it, who have no tolerance for that sort of thing. This magazine has more to lose than any other from someone tilting a story."
Well, David, 1) they're separate companies all right, but with the exact same editor (you) and a CEO (Brill) who still plans to edit articles and reviews in which he will have a direct financial interest; and 2) Brill's Content is not, and will never be, The New York Times. Readers of this magazine, after being instructed each month that "skepticism is a virtue," expect something a little more rigorous than "well, they're doing it too!"
And defending a move by saying that the market will punish any synergistic infractions is a simplistic cop-out, according to Brill's Content's own Eric Effron in the November 1999 issue:
"Sure, the argument is made that any news organization's main asset is its credibility, and that this provides a financial incentive for the parent company to uphold and even strengthen its editorial integrity," Effron wrote. "But that's too easy an answer, because, blatant corruption aside, any news operation makes countless choices about what to cover, how to cover, and what to ignore -- choices easily, if invisibly, affected by the interests of corporate parents or siblings."
It will be interesting to see if Brill now follows his own rigid advice on disclosure policies. In the March 1999 issue he spent 12 paragraphs discussing the many conflicts of Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, who also co-hosts CNN's Reliable Sources, has freelanced for Vanity Fair and ABC, and wrote a book published by a division of Viacom's Simon & Schuster. Brill wrote:
"We all have conflicts, and disclosing them in print or otherwise as a kind of ritual often would seem just plain silly. Should The Wall Street Journal have to disclose to its readers every time it runs a story on General Motors that GM advertises in the paper?
"Yet some conflicts are more real than others, and this one is. Kurtz's readers should know that he has a financial interest in pleasing (or at least not bitterly displeasing) the people and entities that have a financial interest in the stories he writes, just as readers of the Post's coverage of the drug or automobile industries would want to know if a reporter writing about SmithKline Beecham or DaimlerChrysler was a paid consultant for Pfizer or Ford. These are, in fact, the stuff of great Kurtz stories, and the standards of someone writing about media ethics should be at least as high as those of reporters who cover these kinds of other beats."
Compared to Brill, Kurtz is a synergy virgin. Whereas Time Warner's CNN pays Kurtz for hosting a weekly show, CBS, which is set to be taken over by Viacom, owns 35% of a Brill-run business, and stands to gain materially from each and every Brill-edited review of a Simon & Schuster or Scribner book. (Not to mention that Brill the magazine editor has written a cover story about CBS, while Brill the magazine publisher has benefitted from CBS MarketWatch ads.) It's not just that Brill "has a financial interest in pleasing (or at least not bitterly displeasing) the people and entities that have a financial interest in the stories" he edits and publishes, he will also have a personal financial interest in consumers clicking on and buying whatever "unhyped books" his staff writes about.
Brill Media Holdings will now be competing with Amazon.com, partnering (potentially) with every magazine company and book publisher in America, and sharing profits with two of the six major media/entertainment conglomerates, while continuing to solicit ads from and edit articles about all of the above. If the magazine heeds its own hectoring and discloses every new conflict that has been created, it will be virtually impossible to read.
But as Brill himself wrote, about the less-compromised Kurtz: "Maybe this suggests a good rule of thumb about disclosing conflicts: If disclosing them is awkward or embarrassing, perhaps that says something about the conflict rather than about the act of disclosure."
Kuhn and Brill say their integrity will be maintained by forcing their corporate partners to sign non-interfence contracts, giving ombudsman Bill Kovach authority to police synergy violations, and -- most importantly -- trusting the personal infallibility of David Kuhn and Steven Brill.
"You know who I am," Kuhn was quoted in the New York Observer. "You know who Steve Brill is. And all the people I've hired to work on the editorial side of the site are journalists. And even if they aren't, I'm running it and I'm an editor."
(Memo to Dave: most readers have no idea who you are, and quotes like this are an ominous introduction.)
Brill has long believed that the border between editorial and business can be patrolled effectively by those of supreme character -- namely, himself.
"It's not only a Chinese Wall, it's a lead wall that has been erected," he was quoted in the Dow Jones News Service just after the Contentville deal was announced. "I am a great believer in people trumping structures," he told Kovach in the September 1998 issue. "If people on one side or the other of a Chinese Wall don't have integrity, you're going to be out of luck. And I think the reverse is true. If you have people of integrity, the structure is not necessary."
In other words, as long as you trust Brill, it doesn't matter that he's riddled with conflicts, and that the Chinese Wall runs straight down the middle of his brain. And that, finally, is the trouble: Brill, for my money, is not trustworthy.
In the February 2000 issue, Eric Effron described how Brill, then the CEO and editor in chief of Legal Times, brought his editorial and advertising departments together to create special sections that were palatable to both sides, an act that Effron describes as "the day I lost my virginity." "Without the added incentive of their advertising potential, we may not have bothered with many of them, or we would have packaged them differently," he wrote.
Steven Brill, then, is perfectly willing to put advertisers -- let alone business partners -- ahead of readers. That's one hell of a philosophy for a media watchdog.
And, clearly, Brill's enormous confidence in his own beliefs has clouded the magazine's editorial judgment. For example, in November 1998 the magazine published an astonishing apologia (backed by a Brill editorial) of L.A. Times Publisher Mark Willes' destruction of his paper's own Chinese Wall, referring to Willes' critics as "naysayers" and concluding that the arrangement "has actually given editors and writers more authority and power than they had before."
With a track record of slanting the magazine toward his own business philosophies, how can we now trust Brill to cover modern media issues such as synergy, or corporate partnering, or e-commerce journalism, or the marketing of books (which Brill, who will soon be marketing books, wrote about in the February 2000 issue without mentioning one word about Contentville)?
I, like Brill, have owned a publication that I edited. But I never personally made a business deal with anyone I assigned or wrote a story about. I, like Effron, have sat in a meeting with advertising executives discussing which special sections my newspaper would produce. But, unlike Brill, my publisher gave the editorial department final say over what would get published.
"People will be able to see if we do anything that seems compromising," Kuhn said in the New York Observer, "but we won't."
Actually, David, I don't want to work that hard. Most people would rather simply trust a publication than comb through it for sins of synergy, and trust is something that takes more than 18 months of sanctimony to build. The burden of proof is on you, not your readers. No amount of non-interference contracts, bogus self-comparisons to the New York Times, or even publishing of counterpoints such as this column can mask this simple fact: You are doing business with the subjects you cover. This is not the "appearance" of a conflict of interest, this is the "existence" of a conflict of interest.
And appointing Kovach as internal watchdog will be meaningless as long as his responsibilities continue to be limited to the print product. Besides, as Kovach co-wrote in the New York Times following the AOL/Time Warner merger: "Trying to pinpoint the moment of self-censorship, or internal conflict, is like trying to photograph someone's thought process."
It is entirely possible for deeply conflicted news organizations to do good work, and I'm sure Brill Media Holdings is filled with fine people. But, in the words of Kovach, "Brill's Content must ... match or top in its own performance the standard it applies to others."
By leaping into bed with the industry he covers, Brill willingly forfeited whatever claim he might have had on the moral high ground, and on the right to be taken seriously as an impartial consumer advocate dedicated to keeping the media honest. He has become a purveyor of the cynicism he claims to detest.
Matt Welch is a staff writer and columnist for the Online Journalism Review, where a substantially different version of this column originally ran. He once had an inconclusive meeting with Eric Effron about potentially writing for Brill's Content.