Matt Welch

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© 1986-2004

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.

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