Politics & Policy

Bye-Bye Brill’s

Media critics left and right.

When Osama bin Laden goes to Hell, if there’s any justice, he’ll be forced to spend at least a few days a month working with former Brill’s Content fact checkers. You might think taking time off from his primary duties in Hell — say, as a transvestite cabaret singer in a prison cafeteria that only serves pork products — just to deal with a few 23-year-old Brown University graduates would be too lenient. But then, you’ve probably never had some kid demand that you prove bears crap in the woods.

That’s generally the sort of thing I had to go through when I wrote for Brill’s Content, the media watchdog magazine which closed permanently last week. For over a year I was a contributing editor and, more importantly, the token conservative media critic over there. I wrote “from the Right” for a rock’em-sock’em-robots feature called “Face Off.”

I understood why the fact checkers needed to be so brutal. At the outset, the magazine’s mission was to be the official cudgel for journalistic Torquemadas. A sort of Consumer Reports dedicated to making sure the ingredients of other journalistic fare checked out in their independent tests, Brill’s Content went around catching split infinitives and bad footnotes throughout the media world (the September 1999 issue even ran a story, “We Put Consumer Reports Through Our Lab Test”).

And you simply can’t go around playing that sort of hypertechnical gotcha without making sure your own magazine is mistake-free. So, Brill’s fact checkers would go over every sentence of text with what felt — from this writer’s perspective — like proctological exactitude.

The reason Brill’s Content never took off is not because it was a bad magazine. (Okay, at first it was a bad magazine. But it improved dramatically over its run, especially under the editorial leadership of Eric Effron and David Kuhn.) The problem with Brill’s Content was that it was essentially a bad idea.

The critique that stuck — though the author of it eludes me — was that Brill’s Content was a “media criticism magazine without any media criticism.” Instead, there was a lot of stuff about how the sausage gets made and, more relevantly, about the sausage makers. For some reason, Steven Brill — the creator of Court TV and American Lawyer magazine — believed that hundreds of thousands of “media consumers” care as much about the managers of their cable chat shows as they do about the managers of their 401(k)s. They don’t.

Americans do care about the news: whether we’ve killed Osama bin Laden, if the Dow went up or down today, if cats have suddenly become more explosive than nitroglycerin (“This just in: Cats still always land on their feet. But now only for a moment.”). What Americans care much, much, much less about is whether it’s Dan Rather or Peter Jennings who relays this information. And an even a tinier fraction of people care whether Peter Jennings is pissed because he can’t have his first pick to fill the job of substitute weekend anchor, or some such.

To the extent normal people want to read about celebrity journalists (who are invariably less interesting — by several orders of magnitude — than they think they are), it’s when there’s gossip to be had. The idea that there were 300,000 to 800,000 people eager to read gossip-free behind-the-scenes stuff about NPR or the Associated Press was absurd. That doesn’t mean Brill’s Content was a bad magazine for people who cared about such things; it’s just that there weren’t enough of us.

Last year, my friend Frank Foer wrote a cover story for The New Republic whacking Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz for being too obsessed with minor conflicts of interest, and not sufficiently concerned with “prose and ideas.” Foer argued that critics like Kurtz and Brill sound “like an East German figure-skating judge, docking reporters for technicalities.” Foer would much prefer we resuscitate the late (and reportedly) great A.J. Liebling, whose work in The New Yorker “judged what’s on the page, as opposed to how it got there.”

At the time, I walloped Frank for not realizing that conservatives offer this sort of media criticism every day (and because I think Kurtz is actually quite good). The simple fact that conservatives have been excluded from the elite news kitchens has forced many of us to become extremely gifted food critics (I’m not thinking of myself, but of people like James Bowman, Hilton Kramer, Daniel Seligman, Terry Teachout, Richard Brookhiser, Noemie Emery, et al).

And I still think that’s true. Mainstream liberal media critics can’t criticize “what’s on the page” of the New York Times or Time magazine, because they mostly agree with what’s on the page of the New York Times and Time magazine. (Many on Brill’s editorial staff were veterans of Mother Jones.) So all that’s left for them is catching conflicts of interest and reporting on salary negotiations. Meanwhile, conservatives are free to dissect everything they find in the Times, because they disagree with it and because they can say so without closing any job opportunities.

And, yeah, of course you can always criticize the press from the Left, but to do so you have to believe in all sorts of things that aren’t true. You have to believe that corporations are ideologically right-wing (this hasn’t been true since Thomas Nast was drawing cartoons of pigs in tuxedos). You have to agree with Jeff Cohen of FAIR (my old “Face Off” foe in Brill’s Content) that PBS is a hotbed of homophobia and neoconservatism. In short, you have to be on crack, or at least write like you are.

Or you have to be a jerk. I don’t mean this in a personal sense — necessarily. But there is a tone to media criticism that sniffs of profound snobbery. I once sat at a table with a widely respected Washington media writer. He exclaimed, “Everybody thinks they can be a media critic these days.” His tone was exactly that of a country-club member who couldn’t believe Irish and Jews might think they could join.

There is an attitude among media writers (including a few conservative ones) that dissecting the media is an elusive skill available only to a select few. There are the Old Guard types who are simply offended that anything should be different than it was when only a few organizations controlled the news flow in this country. Daniel Schorr, Marvin Kalb, et al, are old cranks who just don’t like change (you should see Jack Shafer’s review of Kalb’s book in today’s Wall Street Journal). And then there are young cranks who seem not to like the fact that journalism is no longer considered a priesthood, or your Columbia Journalism School diploma deemed a holy sacrament.

The truth is that today — thanks in large part to the web, as well as to the growth of conservative media — anybody can be a media critic. The web teems with me-zines, chat rooms, and “citizen-journalists” who are just as good — and just as bad — at dissecting the press as anybody else. After all, if “what’s on the page” is what’s important, then everyone begins at the same starting line.

Full Disclosure

The Friday before Steve Brill announced he would close Brill’s Content for good, I submitted a solicited essay to the magazine. I have no doubt I will never be paid for it.

Steven Brill and I disagreed, very publicly, about his story on Ken Starr and Monicagate, which appeared in the first issue of Brill’s Content. For example, I believe I compared him to the Unabomber on Larry King Live. Regardless, I remain grateful for the fact that he offered me a gig with his magazine, the fact checkers’ proctological exactitude notwithstanding, and for his continued graciousness towards me.

As far as I know, cats do not explode under natural circumstances.


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