Media: The truth, the whole truth (and anything but the truth)

A magazine has been launched to expose the misdemeanours of the US media. It has its work cut out.
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WHEN BILL Clinton waved a copy of the prototype for a new magazine, Brill's Content, at the White House Correspondents' Dinner earlier this year, warning the press corps of the dangers ahead, little did anyone know that the magazine's first issue, published last week, would have such an impact.

Even the magazine's creator and savvy marketeer, Steven Brill, could not have dreamed of the exposure Brill's Content has received in the week since its launch, largely driven by his own article, "Pressgate", which included the first admissions from independent council Kenneth Starr that he had leaked information to the press about the Monica Lewinsky investigation.

To be sure, Brill's "Pressgate" expose is a meticulous reconstruction of how the media followed a trail of leaks, counter-leaks and rumours as the Lewinsky story broke and it contained the scoop of Starr admitting working with the press. But Brill's real skill may have been the careful engineering of the story's release in dribbles, playing the media like a fiddle. An advance copy of the "Pressgate" article was given to the weekend New York Times, which resulted in a front page story about Starr admitting he leaked to the press. That story got Brill on most of the Sunday morning political talk shows and allowed him to visit the network morning shows early in the week.

A celebrity-heavy cocktail party launching the magazine last Monday kept the media spotlight on the title, but, ironically, it was Starr who did the most for Content when he responded to Brill's article mid-week (just in time for the magazines arrival on the news stands on Wednesday (march 17)) with a 19-page letter which kept the story alive for rest of the week's news cycle.

Ken Auletta, media critic of the New Yorker, explained the spin control: "Brill wrote a solid piece but forget that, this free publicity is a dream, to be on the front page of the New York Times and on every television network, then Starr writes that letter, he should thank Ken Starr every day."

While Brill protested on talk shows like CNN's Larry King Live that everyone was ignoring the real thrust of his article, which was how the media rushed to judgement on the Lewinsky story, it was difficult to feel sorry for him. No magazine launch since JFK Junior's George, launched three years ago, has received so much attention.

Not all of that attention has been good, however, and Brill was forced to admit he had made a major error in not disclosing his past donations to the Democratic Party, which allowed critics to suggest his political bias as the reason the Pressgate article was pro-Clinton.

Brill, however, took the good and bad attention in his stride. The man who started the cable channel Court TV and the bible of the legal world, The American Lawyer magazine, was clearly enjoying the spotlight.

Brill, who has a reputation as a demanding boss and a mentor for great journalists, was forced out of the company he created by partners Time Warner, TCI and NBC when they thwarted his attempt to buy Court TV and The American Lawyer publishing interests. Brill left with a bad taste in his mouth and a payout which was believed to be more than $20 million (pounds 12.5 million) and set up Brill Media Ventures, the first product of which is Brill's Content.

There is certainly enough distrust of the media in the US to warrant some stringent examination. As the back page compendium of statistics in Brill's Content points out, only 1 in 14 Americans believes that journalists are more honest than most people.

There is also fertile ground. Just last week the Boston Globe's award- winning columnist, Patricia Smith, admitted fabricating quotes and people in some of her articles. In May, Stephen Glass - a writer for magazines such as George, Rolling Stone, The New Republic and Harpers - also got caught fabricating stories, sources and events. Other past media sins range from the rigging of trucks to make them explode by NBC's current affairs show, Dateline, or Time magazine's "darkening" of a mug shot of OJ Simpson to make him appear more sinister.

While the debut issue of Brill's Content is serious and hard-hitting, the question still remains whether it can attract a mainstream audience of 500,000 over five years, as Brill hopes (in comparison, the political magazine, George, is attracting around 400,000 readers after three years). Brill says the monthly's audience is the media consumer, not the media themselves, but there is some scepticism about whether enough consumers will be interested in many of the topics.

Though a crowd of media heavy-weights, such as former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, CBS newsman Dan Rather and 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace, along with Internet gossip Matt Drudge and actor George Clooney, packed out Manhattan's favourite power lunch venue, The Four Seasons Grill Room, for the magazine's launch last week (Monday 15 June), it is doubtful many of them have yet made it through to the end of the rather dense magazine. What was glaringly obvious from many of the media interviews over the "Pressgate" story was how few of the interviewers or commentators had read the full contents of the story, weighing in at 25,000 words.

Not everyone who did read the "Pressgate" story thought it was fair, and since the magazine began circulating amongst many of its subjects last week, the complaints have been piling up. Ken Starr's letter refuted much of Brill's article, calling it a "reckless and irresponsible attack (which) borders on the libellous." Brill responded that Starr had not disputed any of his quotes and challenged Starr to release his phone records of discussions with reporters. He has also appointed an independent ombudsman to oversee all complaints from readers, and to be a watchdog on the magazine's practices.

Yet Brill's credibility has taken a few blows since he set himself up as the watchdog of the media, and it is easy to detect a sense of glee in the media scrutiny of his practices. Rupert Murdoch's New York Post has run a "Brill's Content Watch".

In an earlier embarrassing incident, Brill engineered a deal with the NBC current affairs show Dateline to collaborate on television stories, but when the news broke in May, critics, and some of Brill's own staff, complained that the deal would make it difficult for Brill's Content to write fairly about Dateline's practices. Brill backed away from the deal and has admirably approached all of these slip-ups head-on with a mea culpa and a promise to do better.

While it is clear members of the media are paying attention to Content, the magazine's biggest test will be in building interest from the general public beyond its killer first issue, which gives some hint of what lies ahead. It contains a mixed bag, including features on how television bookers nail their guests; how fashion magazines fabricate their cosmetics credits and how teen magazines fabricate letters from readers. It also includes many positive pieces about the media, including a story on how the New York Times exposed a health care giant; how a reporter uncovered the financial truth about a celebrity investment club and a section which looks at unhyped books which deserve further attention. While most pieces are well written, (except for a rambling rant from actor George Clooney about the blending of news and entertainment) many of the articles may be too detailed and too "inside" for a mass audience.

As the New Yorker's Auletta points out, the magazine is a work in a progress which is off to a stellar start, but it has a long way to go to make it commercially. "The Columbia Journalism Review (a review of the media published by Columbia University's respected journalism school) has well under 50,000 readers so Brill knows he has to broaden the magazine to include advertising, Hollywood and all aspects of communications. Whether he can grow it into 500,000 in five years? I am sceptical, and that is a mild word."