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Wolff's Brill's Content

When Steve Brill decided to investigate me, I decided to investigate him back -- and therein discovered the "true" nature (more or less) of his overreaching crusade.

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I am being investigated by Brill's Content.

"There are serious questions being raised about your new book," a young reporter from the magazine charges.

"Who's raising these questions?"

"I'm not free to tell you that."

"It's a funny book," I say lightly. "I hope the questions aren't too serious." The book, Burn Rate, is a memoir about the birth of the Internet industry and the tragicomic (more farce than tragedy) failure of my own Internet business.

"I don't think it would be funny if you distorted the truth."

"It's my story. It's the way I saw it," I sputter defensively, feeling unpleasantly compared to the disgraced reporter Stephen Glass.

A few days later, Brill's reporter, Noah Robischon, calls back and asks for the notes and other materials I've used to write the book. He seems genuinely put out, affronted even, when I decline to surrender my notes.

"I think you should seriously think about turning them over," he says ominously.

The editorial proposition of the magazine is that we all want to know about how the media works. The subtext is that journalists are such a despised class that large numbers of people will buy a magazine that rebukes them. "Journalists are probably the only people on the planet who make lawyers look good," says the magazine's chairman, CEO, publisher, and editor, Steven Brill, whose earlier entrepreneurial effort was a magazine about lawyers.

The business proposition is aggressive, too. The magazine is not just for people in the media business. Brill's Content wants to achieve a circulation of 500,000 and attract big brand-name consumer advertisers -- a formidable, expensive, and wildly unlikely undertaking. Brill himself says it will cost $25 million. In an introduction to the first issue, editor Brill speaks of a search for truth -- Brill's reporters will be an independent truth squad ("We see this as the one black line in everything we are going to write about: Is it true?"). Putting aside questions of whose truth it will be, it's hard to imagine that a seasoned entrepreneur would spend $25 million only for the truth.

Brill's mission is to cover the media, and so is mine; therefore, I reason with some insouciance, I should cover Brill covering me. Sort of Wolff's Brill's Content.

I e-mail Brill's twentysomething reporter that I would like to question him about his questioning of me.

In short order, Caroline Miller, New York's editor-in-chief, receives a call from Brill complaining that I am trying to intimidate his "young reporter." Partly, no doubt, because Brill himself is changing the assumptions of how to report who said what to whom, Ms. Miller prepares what lawyers call contemporaneous notes of her conversation with Brill. From Miller's report of her conversation, it's clear that Brill is not amused by the double reversal I'm proposing -- writing about Brill writing about me writing about other people. His mission, he obviously believes, is righteous, and mine dubious.

"The tenor of Michael's proposal," Miller says to Brill, "as it was conveyed to me, was quite . . . sportsmanlike."

"Well," says Brill, "this was a young reporter, and when he came to talk to me about it, I have to tell you, he was scared to death. . . ."

This seems to be, if not an invitation, at least a reason to call Brill himself. Brill says: "I do not discuss stories we're working on . . ." and hangs up on me. There's wrath in his voice, and some other note: fervor. (Minutes later, however, his assistant calls back to get my address, title, and other specifics for the office Rolodex.)

I find myself asking the question the investigated always asks about the investigator: Who is this guy, anyway?

In fact, it's hard to have hung around the media business and not know Brill. He's one of the business's unique creations. Many people have their Brill story: He's made them cry, or kept them waiting for hours, or upbraided them publicly. The stories of his financial ups and downs, his deals, his battles, his chutzpa, are legion. His passionate admirers are outnumbered only by his passionate detractors. He is what my father used to call "an operator." So his new role, necessarily holier than thou, seems an unlikely one.

But maybe not.


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