Information Overlord Steven Brill's new magazine hits the stands like a torpedo, targeting the media and drawing its fire in return.

June 20, 1998|By ARTHUR HIRSH

NEW YORK -- This balding man sitting here in his French cuffs, yellow necktie and suspenders in an 11th-floor office amid a drift of papers, Fed-Ex boxes, unread manuscripts spilling from the IN box, this would be the low-energy version of Steven Brill. Bushed but certainly not beaten, Brill sits in a clutter between appointments, between appearances on MSNBC and Charlie Rose, apparently weary from his plunge into a vast media hall of mirrors: the media critic criticized by the media to such an extent as to become a media phenom himself.

Brill's Content, a new monthly media magazine, has hit the newsstands on this day in the life of Brill, 47, erstwhile journalism wonder boy, creator of The American Lawyer magazine and Court TV, tenacious cage-rattler.

The magazine debuted on Wednesday, but the nation has been yakking about the magazine ever since last Sunday's New York Times gave Page 1 display to a story about Content's cover story. "Pressgate" accuses the media of becoming an "enabler" for Kenneth W. Starr's "abuse of power" in the Monica Lewinsky-President Clinton imbroglio. The article written by Brill, the magazine's chairman and editor-in-chief, accuses the Whitewater independent counsel and a top deputy of breaking the law by briefing reporters during the grand jury investigation.

Reporters named in the article have accused Brill of misquoting them and distorting a story about distorted stories. Starr -- who told Brill he did not leak grand jury information -- has written an open letter to Brill, saying "your reckless and irresponsible attack borders on the libelous." Starr's letter runs 19 pages -- still not quite as long as Brill's article, a 28-page blow-by-blow account of full-tilt media frenzy.

The blue-eyed man behind the big desk has in the previous 72 hours granted dozens of interviews and has appeared on "Face the Nation," "Larry King Live," "Today," C-SPAN, Fox News, MSNBC and the Don Imus radio show, among others. More appearances are scheduled this weekend on "Meet the Press," "Inside Washington" and "Reliable Sources." The buzz is a marketer's dream, even if Brill's article was described by a Newsweek reporter as "fundamentally dishonest" "utterly garbage" and "slimy."

As of yesterday, Brill planned to publish Starr's entire letter and two minor corrections of his story: the spelling of one person's name and a time-sequence detail in an account of how The Wall Street Journal posted an erroneous story on its Internet site.

The public outrage apparently has been good for business. Editorial director Michael Kramer says many distributors were sold out by week's end and were demanding more magazines. && He says the initial printing of 300,000 copies would be bumped up about 75,000.

"I thought that there'd be a lot of reaction," Brill says calmly. "The extent of it surprised me."

The graduate of Yale Law School is no stranger to insult, uproar or attempted intimidation. After he wrote a March 1976 cover story for Harper's, "Jimmy Carter's Pathetic Lies," Time magazine dispatched a reporter to discredit Brill's journalistic reputation. They came up empty but did manage to get one Washington correspondent to anonymously label Brill "a hit man" and "the liberal enforcer."

He received threats while writing "The Teamsters," a 1978 book examining the union's corruption. The following year Brill, who never practiced law as he never took the bar examination, launched The American Lawyer. Focusing on the business and personalities rather than the substance of law, the monthly magazine created a sensation in the legal world, variously applauded as groundbreaking or trashed as a barrister's National Enquirer.

This furor over Content, though, is unlike anything Brill has experienced before.

"This is more intense because this really is about the media, it's not so much Ken Starr," says Brill. "Ken Starr writing letters is not so much the pressure that we're under. It's the media."

The trick now, he says, is to "stay disciplined and remember the only people that count are the people you're writing the magazine for, not everybody else because everybody else, most of them, are going to hate you."

Brill, whose reputation as a volatile and occasionally cruel boss has been clearly established in published profiles, has never seemed very concerned about who hates him. The question of the moment is, once the "Pressgate" furor has subsided, who is going to buy the magazine.

Brill says his magazine -- subtitled "The Independent Voice of the Information Age" -- is "meant to appeal to a broad audience by writing about subjects that that audience is going to understand. Its constituency are the people who consume media, not the people that produce it."

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