Hey everybody, I'm starting up a new magazine and Web site! I'm gonna cover, uh, the oil industry, really stick it to 'em, consumer-first democracy watchdog in the New Era!
Oh yeah, and I'm also launching a new e-commerce venture, called buyoilfrommatt.com - with the help of $100 million of investment and promotion from my partners at Exxon, Shell and British Petroleum!
Sounds ridiculous, maybe even horrible? Well, welcome to the sad and stupid little world of Brill's Content.
In a move so brazen and delusional that even media reporters have been left speechless, the sanctimonious egomaniac Steven Brill announced February 2 that CBS, NBC and several other large media companies he scrutinizes as an editor have joined together to form Contentville.com, an online store hawking books and magazines.
The magazine and Web site will have the same editor (David Kuhn), share the same office space, and some of the same content [mostly reviews]. Though Brill immediately stepped down as editor in chief of his self-titled publication [for workload concerns, not conflict-of-interest issues, mind you], he told staffers in a memo he still plans to write features and read each article at least once.
In other words, Brill has started a joint venture with CBS (which owns 35%), designed to recommend whether readers should buy books from publishers like Simon & Schuster [owned by Viacom, CBS' proposed merger partner], and will take a commission on each resulting sale. He has a direct financial interest in any story involving General Electric's NBC and Viacom's CBS or their competitors, he will benefit materially from every positive book or magazine review he publishes, and his right to cover one of the most important media issues of the day -- synergy and corporate cross-partnership -- is hopelessly compromised.
And, incredibly, he seems blind to the fact that his business model is like publishing the Los Angeles Times' infamous Staples Center issue every day ... except 10 times as hypocritical.
"It's not only a Chinese wall," he snorted to the Dow Jones News Service, "it's a lead wall that has been erected."
Let's go back, way back to March 1999, to a column Brill wrote about the conflicts of Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, who moonlights for CNN and has worked for Vanity Fair, ABC and even Brill's Content:
"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."
There is no way to square this logic with Brill's lunge for Internet-bubble money. He has forfeited whatever right he had to be taken seriously as a chronicler and commentator on the media.
What makes this interesting for the rest of us is not just the spectacle of a magazine destroying its credibility, but it's how the arguments Brill and Kuhn are using to defend the indefensible are depressingly common among respected lieutenants of traditional media companies. In an era of mind-blowing mergers, crazy Innernut money and unnervingly rapid change, the sober folk who speak at our journalism conferences have lost their marbles.
Kuhn's protests of editorial integrity are as intellectually rigorous as a shoving match at a kickball game.
"You know who I am," he told 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."
I haven't seen this much unintentional humor since Top Gun. But as ridiculous as it is, this kind of chest-thumping is taking place all over midtown Manhattan.
"We have a long history of covering these things, and we do it with journalistic integrity, and we damn well plan to keep doing it that way," Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson said in a January 11 Washington Post article, when Howard Kurtz asked him how he planned to cover AOL. "We have a lot of practice."
"There's no way that these people are going to be corrupted into doing something to please AOL corporate management," Fortune Magazine Managing Editor John Huey said on CNN. "Integrity has nothing to do with size or synergy. It has to do with the integrity of the people who are running the news organizations."
Apparently, the way you justify "providing content" for the likes of such consumer-squeezing non-news companies as AOL or Viacom, is to invent an attack on your manhood, do your best Robert DeNiro impersonation ["what, you saying you don't trust me?!"] ... and then, sixth-grader-like, point to the next guy and say, "well, he's doing it too!"
As Kuhn told Mediaweek:
"People wonder how we can cover the media companies that have invested in us. 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."
This is astonishing, tone-deaf hypocrisy ["ridiculous"?], especially when contrasted with the very words of Kuhn's predecessor [and still a current Brill's editor] Eric Effron, typed just last November:
"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."
Yet here was David Kuhn in the New York Post (in a quote originally and mistakenly attributed by the Post -- and the OJR -- to Effron):
"Will it inhibit us from writing objectively about the companies? Absolutely not.... It's no different from a newspaper that runs movie ry important publication is not "in business with other media companies." The Nation isn't. The OJR isn't. Jorn freakin' Barger isn't. Yes, importance is in the eye of the beholder, but there are few spectacles more nauseating than watching the media elites in Manhattan, the Beltway and now the Silicon Valley sip their cocktails, wave their hands and say "oh, that independence stuff is so passť." Speak for yourself, assholes.
4) Skepticism is a virtue. That's the slogan on the cover of Brill's Content. People involved in synergistic media practices tend to be dishonest about it, especially in the early days. When Disney bought ABC, both sides assured the world that Disney executives wouldn't be shoving their content onto ABC. Whoops! They did (to the detriment of both, it turned out).
AOL and Time Warner are saying the same things.... The fact that Brill and his editors are making a rhetorical about-face when it comes to conflicts-of-interest does not inspire confidence.
IT'S A MICHAEL KINSLEY WORLD
It's important to point out, as Michael Kinsley always will, that in today's U.S. there are more media, more choice, more words, more platforms, more freedoms, more quality reading material than at any time probably anywhere in the world. And, tangibly, Brill's Content will probably still be an OK (if woodenly written) magazine, filled with information, compiled by well-meaning people, etc.
It is entirely possible for deeply conflicted news organizations to do perfectly great work. As Eric Alterman has pointed out, Slate's coverage of the Microsoft trial was excellent [I didn't read it], even after Kinsley gave this initial disclaimer about his fundamental conflict:
"Slate will never give Microsoft the skeptical scrutiny it requires as a powerful institution in American society -- any more than Time will sufficiently scrutinize Time Warner. No institution can reasonably be expected to audit itself.... The standard to insist on is that the sins be of omission, not distortion. There will be no major investigations of Microsoft in Slate."
It's no surprise, then, that Kinsley has become a chief apologist for synergy. He was there on PBS, just after the AOL/Time Warner merger, saying that "conflicts of interest ... seems to me to be a little far-fetched. You know, all the things that can corrupt journalists, what his - the company that owns his outlet is doing with another company half owning a third company does not rank very large."
Weirdly [considering how much I viscerally dislike both men, and what they stand for], I find myself agreeing quite frequently with both Kinsley and Brill. I too, don't believe that AOL/Time Warner is the end of the world; I too believe that quality journalism can and should be profitable, and that the market can be a force for good. I even have some extra sympathy for Brill's entrepreneurial drive and rare grasp of economics.
But the trouble with a Michael Kinsley world -- with its Beltway backslapping, wink-and-nudge admission of conflicts, and ethical relativism - is that at the end of the day, readers just don't really believe anything. No matter how well Kinsley covers Microsoft, there will always be a faint stench of conflict wafting from his site. No matter how good CNet, Red Herring, or The Industry Standard may be, I have long since stopped trusting them or reading them regularly, precisely because of their complicated partnerships, side businesses and investment structures. No matter how good TheStreet.com may be, I have stopped reading anything involving Mr. Conflict, James Cramer [who is, naturally, an investor in Contentville].
It's not that I'm calling for an Orthodox world -- as all of the above would be quick to point out, the New York Times is also guilty of conflicts [including -- gasp! -- a partnership with TheStreet.com]. It's just that the New York Times has been earning its trustworthiness for decades, and all of the above are new little companies launched by people going nuts with Internet greed. There's a difference.
If anything, I would urge the Times and the Washington Post to scale back their Internet cross-pollinations before they too become infected. And, for crying out loud, stop quoting Brill as a "media expert," and don't use his tired excuses to justify something equally foul. And Bill Kovach, for your sake, please resign.
When Brill questioned Howard Kurtz' disclosure policies, he concluded:
"But 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."
[My disclosure here -- I once had an inconclusive conversation with Eric Effron about writing an article for the magazine; neither of us followed up].
If Brill applies that standard to himself his publications will be literally impossible to read. It would be instructive for all of us if he gave it a shot.
In "Bye Bye Brill," Matt Welch reprinted a quote from the New York Post that was incorrectly attributed to Eric Effron, instead of David Kuhn, and further implied from that quote the Effron was "closing ranks" behind Kuhn's contention that Brill's has no conflict-of-interest problem. OJR regrets the error, and apologizes to Effron.
What do you think about Brill and Contentville?
Did he sell out for a buck?