Media: Brill's lack of style could be the downfall of his content

The magazine pitched as the watchdog of the American media seems to be chasing its own tail to oblivion.
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The Independent Culture
IT HIT the newsstands like a comet, burning its way on to virtually every front page and television news programme across the country. But Brill's Content, the media magazine launched to enormous publicity earlier this year in the US, has apparently burned out.

Steven Brill, the media entrepreneur who launched American Lawyer magazine and Court TV, looked as if he had hit gold once again when the magazine hit the newsstands. The first issue featured a lengthy look at media coverage of the Monica Lewinsky case. Mr Brill was all over the talk shows, pitching not just the product but its philosophy. It is there as a media watchdog, to maintain standards, investigate wrongdoing and brush up the sloppy practices that persist in the American press, he said.

The problem with the US media is "a lack of systematised, independent accountability," he told Mother Jones magazine. "We will be a consumer guide for people to choose reliable, responsible information. We will use the marketplace to help journalists do the right thing," he told the National Press Club last year.

There has been a slew of stories about poor journalism practices, plagiarism and over-active imaginations. Steven Glass, a young reporter at the New Republic, was revealed to have made up wholesale his stories; two columnists departed from the Boston Globe after some of their quotes and characters were questioned; CNN came under heavy fire over its report into Operation Tailwind, a Vietnam-era episode where CNN claimed the US had used nerve gas, and the Pentagon said it hadn't.

Brill tapped into this, laying into all the sacred cows of the American media, from ABC News and Dateline NBC to Time magazine. It didn't make Mr Brill many friends in the mainstream media. "I will predict it's going to be a bumpy ride as journalists... have to get used to the fact that... in terms of no longer being accountable to the consumers in an organised way, the jig is up. The people who are your customers are our constituency."

But who, exactly, are those customers? Mr Brill said that the first edition sold out its 250,000 initial run, and a second printing of 75,000. Subsequent sales, however, have not been quite so exciting.

"We've had a ton of cancellations from the people on the Right because of the first issue [which attacked Kenneth Starr]. "And I promise you that the second issue or the third issue, we'll get a ton of cancellations from people on the left," he said to Mother Jones.

Last month, the editor-in-chief, Michael Kramer, stepped down. "It's an unhappy circumstance," said Mr Brill. "It has to do with... an internal personnel issue."

But, not surprisingly, there was widespread speculation that the magazine might be in for a rethink. A lot of it is mind-numbing statistics; and the focus on accuracy can be a little deadening after a while. A lot of media writing is flossy and celebrity-focused: while Brill's Content goes to the other extreme - a bit of fluff might not come amiss.

There has been other criticism. The media had been "corrupted to its core" by Mr Starr and his investigation, Mr Brill said in the first issue. Well, hadn't Mr Brill himself given $2,000 (pounds 1,300) to the Clinton election campaign? And if he was so hot on professional standards, why hadn't he recorded the interview with Mr Starr that formed the basis for his article?

It is the magazine' s narrow focus, however, that has probably done it most harm. "There's more to truth than facts," says Salon Magazine, an online service that deals with media issues. "By churning out one soporific doorstop after another, it is effectively telling editors that if you follow Dr Brill's Patented System for Quality Journalism, you will produce a boring magazine."

To some extent, Mr Brill is the victim of deflated expectations. The media loves to build up and then knock down. Matt Drudge, the Internet journalist who has also been scathing about traditional journalism, had advice for Mr Brill after his PR offensive. "Feed the hungry machine slowly," he said.