“I’m taking on the last bastion of unbridled power in America: the press. So I knew I’d get criticized by them.” Indeed, Steven Brill has been getting hammered in the weeks since he launched his new media-watch magazine, Brill’s Content.
Brill, the media-savvy founder of American Lawyer magazine and Court TV, has never shied from controversy, and he took on all comers last week during a visit with the Greater L.A. Press Club at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. “It’s a magazine and it has a point of view,” Brill said of his Content. “My agenda is not hidden.”
But it isn’t Brill’s agenda that has come under attack by the major players profiled in “Pressgate,” the extensive and sensational cover story on press coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal that Brill penned for the debut issue of Brill’s Content. Instead, it was Brill’s ethics — just the sort of questions Brill’s Content is devoted to covering.
The first criticism was leveled by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, who said he was quoted out of context in a “reckless and irresponsible attack that borders on the libelous.”
In the ensuing weeks, several prominent journalists chimed in, claiming they were misquoted in the lengthy piece.
Brill sidestepped those challenges in his L.A. appearance, telling an audience of 25 Press Club members and reporters that the simplest solution to this controversy would be for Starr’s office to release all their telephone and in-person interview logs.
Brill also called for more stringent fact checking throughout the industry. At his own magazine, Brill said he is requiring writers to provide comprehensive background and source material to corroborate their stories. His publication is also sending out questionnaires to a random sample of identified sources, to assure that writers actually did the interviews cited in Brill’s Content.
“Nonfiction, whether it’s delivered in print, TV, radio, books or Web sites is either reliable or it’s not,” said Brill. “Consumers need to have faith that it is.”
Love him or hate him, Brill is undeniably a master of timing, and not just for his headline-grabbing cover story. The launch of his new media review comes on the heels of a spate of recent scandals that include reporters fabricating quotes, fictionalizing characters or using apparent misinformation at The New Republic, Boston Globe and, most recently, CNN/Time Magazine, stories which have landed Brill appearances on Meet the Press and Nightline.
While Brill has accumulated more publicity for Brill’s Content than any other start-up magazine in recent memory, the allegations of misquotes by reporters are indeed troubling.
Brill quoted Susan Schmidt of the Washington Post saying she “heard from sources in Starr’s office something about Vernon Jordan and coaching a witness.” Schmidt immediately wrote Brill, denouncing the quote as false and defamatory. She also demanded a public correction.
Now Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff, another veteran investigative reporter, whose work on Linda Tripp, Lewinsky and the special prosecutor are central to Brill’s article, alleges that Brill “fabricated events and conversations” having to do with him and Newsweek.
“Yes, I have a big problem with what he wrote,” Isikoff told the Weekly. “As far as his reporting on me is concerned, there is nothing that he got right. I believe it’s truly dishonest, not just sloppiness. And I think it’s supremely ironic that he has the nerve to lecture other reporters on the need for factual accuracy.”
Isikoff added that Newsweek’s Washington Bureau Chief, Ann McDaniel, sent a long letter to Bill Kovach, an ombudsman hired by Brill to keep the magazine honest. Isikoff said the letter details a long list of alleged inaccuracies and misquotes, and demands a blanket correction.
Brill replied in writing to Schmidt, stating, “I specifically remember your having made both the statements you now dispute. And my notes clearly reflect that.”
Schmidt commented on Brill’s Press Club appearance by derisively asking, “Was he there looking to hire a fact-checker?” She also said the entire matter is now in the hands of management at the Washington Post. “I’ve washed my hands of all this,” Schmidt said.
Ironically, Schmidt also received one of the questionnaires sent to cited sources. “It asks me if I was quoted accurately,” she said with a laugh.
As for Newsweek, Brill said Isikoff was the only journalist who extracted a prior agreement regarding their interviews.
“I read every quote back to him, including the sentence in front and behind the quote so he could double-check the context in which his words were used,” said Brill. “He knew and approved every quote.
“From now on I want all the writers to try and get permission to tape their interviews, particularly those which might end being challenged by the participants.”
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