Strange Bedfellow

Brill, Mote, and Beam

Media scourge, scourge thyself.

If Steven Brill’s object is to make the media look absurd, he got off to a roaring start. On the front page of the New York Times last Sunday was a story that said the first issue of Brill’s Content would report that Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr had leaked information about his investigation to the press–including the Times. Now if the question of whether Starr leaks to the Times is important enough for the front page, you might wonder why the Times needed Brill to raise the subject. And who knows better than the Times whether Starr leaked to the Times? Yet the Times cites Brill and then cites its own Washington editor, Michael Oreskes, saying the Times does not discuss its sources. And all this contortion was induced by Brill’s having leaked his own forthcoming article to the Times.

But if Brill’s goal is to offer a socially useful critique of media misbehavior, he is doing less well. There are two problems with Brill’s Content. The first is that though the editor seems to envision a magazine that will hold the press accountable to a wider public, he has created one that is unlikely to interest anyone outside the media. The second problem is that though Brill deserves a Pulitzer for self-righteousness, he simply isn’t a careful enough journalist himself to be criticizing others.

Let’s start with the magazine. After hearing it disputed for so many days, potential readers will be fooled into thinking something scintillating is going on. In fact, what will strike most people when they finally get their hands on Brill’s Content is how boring it is. Dullness is a problem for media magazines in general, the prototype being the ever worthy, always soporific Columbia Journalism Review. CJR is filled with articles you’d say only people in the business could possibly want to read, except that they’re too mundane even for people in the business. “New Guild contract at the Milwaukee Sentinel” is the sort of thing CJR does. You will find praise for that five-part series on Pennsylvania’s neglected infrastructure, and a spank for local TV news directors who can’t seem to put anything but crime on the air.

Brill is hoping for an audience beyond the industry, but most of his magazine–the first issue, anyhow–amounts to little more than CJR on steroids. There’s a long feature lauding the New York Times for its fine reporting on mismanagement at the Columbia/HCA health care conglomerate, and another rapping 60 Minutes for a flawed story–aired 10 years ago–on alleged spontaneous acceleration in Audis. There’s a “Heroes” column about the reporter at Chicago magazine who exposed the Beardstown Ladies for inflating the returns of their investment club. Seems he had to go in for sinus surgery the day the Wall Street Journal picked up his scoop. Crazy … If I were a better person, perhaps I would read stories like this through to the end.

What is pernicious is Brill’s attitude that he’s the only guy in the world with the guts to point out other people’s mistakes. His maximum opus on the first three weeks of Monica Lewinsky scandal coverage is intended to be a devastating case study of media malpractice. This 24,000 word story charges reporters with just about every sin in the book, and commits most of them itself. Here are 10 journalistic no-nos that stand out in Brill’s piece:

1) Overhyping to the Point of Dishonesty

Brill contends the press has allowed itself to be used by Starr to make Clinton look guilty. But to prove that Starr has leaked grand jury information to the media–which, by the way, Brill doesn’t do–is not to demonstrate that journalists have been irresponsible. By my reading, Brill does not document a single error of fact made in the national publications he analyzes–the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, and Newsweek–and he presents only a few cases in which any of them even misplayed a story in a significant way. He ignores the tough coverage Starr has received. To conclude, as Brill does, that the press is now “an institution being corrupted to its core” wildly overreaches the evidence he presents.

2) Misquotation

Susan Schmidt, a Washington Post reporter, claims she did not tell Brill that she “heard from Starr’s office something about Vernon Jordan and coaching a witness.” The quote is damaging because it implies Schmidt revealed the identity of an anonymous source. For another example from a nonjournalist who claims plausibly to have been misquoted by Brill, see “Chatterbox.” We cannot know for sure who is right, because Brill did not tape-record his interviews.

3) Self-Contradiction

Later in the piece, Brill writes that Schmidt and another reporter “declined all comment on their sources.” Well, did she or didn’t she?

4) Distortion

Brill accuses Newsweek of suppressing critical exculpatory information about Clinton in its initial story published online. He cites a passage in the Linda Tripp tapes in which Tripp asks Lewinsky if the president knows she is going to lie in her upcoming deposition in the Paula Jones case. Lewinsky answers “No.” Michael Isikoff, the Newsweek reporter whom Brill criticizes, notes, first, that the full exchange is equivocal–Lewinsky also tells Tripp the president doesn’t think she is going to tell the truth. Second, the Newsweek online story stated that the tapes offer “no clear evidence” to support or undermine Tripp’s allegations. And third, in the issue it published the following Monday, Newsweek included the full excerpt–which is where Brill found the out-of-context quote he claims Newsweek ignored.

5) Neglecting Contradictory Evidence

In building his case that much of the information could have come only from Starr, Brill ignores a highly plausible alternative explanation: Most if not all could have come from the lawyers of various witnesses sympathetic to the president. Lawyers for the Clintons, Betty Currie, White House steward Bayani Nelvis, and others are operating under what is called a “joint defense agreement.” They pool data about what their clients have told Starr’s grand jury. This means there are lots of lawyers with access to information about what various witnesses said and a variety of motivations to leak that information. Noting this possibility isn’t just a matter of fairness–it’s an issue of basic intellectual honesty.

6) Giving Only One Side of an Argument

Brill asserts that leaks from Starr’s office were obviously illegal. “There are court decisions,” he writes, “that have ruled explicitly that leaking information about prospective witnesses who might testify at a grand jury, or about expected testimony, or about negotiations regarding immunity for testimony, or [about] the strategy of a grand jury proceeding all fall within the criminal prohibition.” Nowhere does he note court decisions that have ruled the opposite, or acknowledge that the question is far from settled.

7) Faking Scoops

Almost all the criticism of the press in Brill’s piece is familiar, much of it to the point of cliché. Items about “witnesses” retracted by the Dallas Morning News and the Wall Street Journal Web edition have been endlessly hashed over. So have various nuances that Brill presents as revelatory. Both the Washington Post and Slate, for instance, have reported that the source for the erroneous Dallas Morning News item about a Secret Service witness was Joseph DiGenova. Brill reinvents the wheel in this way numerous times. And while we’re at it, is it really a revelation that Starr talks to reporters? At televised press conferences he has held in Little Rock, he can be seen calling on journalists by their first names, suggesting that he knows some of them pretty well and that he doesn’t regard this as a secret.

8) Sabotage Through Blind Quotes

Defending the New York Times story on Currie, “one Times reporter” is quoted by Brill as saying that “this was not some Sue Schmidt jam job.” Schmidt is the reporter covering the Whitewater-Lewinsky beat for the Washington Post. To allow her competitors to snipe at her under cover of anonymity seems exactly the sort of thing Brill started his magazine to nail other journalists for doing. And what’s a “jam job,” anyway?

9) Conflict of Interest

Howard Kurtz reports in the Washington Post this week that Brill and his wife donated $2,000 to the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1996. Most publications forbid journalists from making campaign contributions, certainly to people they’re writing about. But whether or not Brill thinks such a prohibition makes sense–I look forward to 20,000 words on the topic in a future issue of Brill’s Content–he should have disclosed this fact, as he acknowledged when busted.

Don’t get me wrong. Reporters, especially TV reporters, have been far from blameless in Flytrap. In the heat of competition, stories have run that shouldn’t have. But the best reporters covering the scandal have done an extremely good job in a vexing and unfamiliar situation. At times, they have behaved almost heroically. When first offered a chance to listen to the Tripp tapes, Isikoff refused, passing up what might have been the scoop of the decade out of concern that doing so would put him in an ethically compromised situation. Brill disparages these compunctions, noting that Isikoff had to run off to “CNBC, where he was a paid Clinton sex scandal pundit.” Actually, Isikoff notes, it was MSNBC, where he was under contract to discuss the campaign finance scandal. That makes 10) Errors of Fact. But more to the point, is there anybody who thinks that Steve Brill, back before he was a press scold, would have passed up the chance to hear those tapes?

Steven Brill.

If you missed the link to Slate’s Chatterbox, where a nonjournalist claims he was misquoted by Brill in the “Pressgate” piece, click here.