Court TV and Brill’s Content’s Steven Brill on What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media

Steven Brill. Photo: Courtesy of Steven Brill

I get the sense that even for you, there can be headwinds to finding a suitable home for long-form journalism.
I’m not personally having any trouble. My trouble has always been getting big ideas and then somehow figuring out how to compress them into only 25,000 words. Just to give you an example, there’s a very big story I’m doing coming out toward the end of the summer that’s to be almost the length of the Time magazine health-care article. And in thinking about possible places to go with it, where I was measuring the impact it would have and the appetite that publishers would have for it, it certainly is a smaller number of potential titles than it would have been even a couple of years ago. That, in turn, is a much smaller group than it would have been ten years ago. The other issue is, will people read it and pay attention? To just to give you an example, I did a very long story on Trump University that came out in November. It was eight or ten pages in Time magazine. But for reasons that I don’t understand, it wasn’t on the cover, and as a result, it was hard to find any living adult who read it until after there was more controversy about Trump University, when some political people picked it up and started talking about it. I think Bob Woodward went on Morning Joe and said, “Hey, did anybody read this article?” But that was weeks after it came out. So it’s a combination of other outlets and how much attention people pay to those outlets. 

So it’s not just the information, it’s about the conversation.
Yes. Having said that, if you do hit a vein and write something original, obviously people notice it. That’s probably the lesson of my health-care article and the Johnson & Johnson series that I did in the Huffington Post. That got a huge audience, a lot of pickup. There’s litigation that’s going on following the Johnson & Johnson thing, so all is not lost.

My editor at New York said they had been considering your piece about Trump University and passed on it and were kicking themselves. 
Yes, Adam Moss famously said — this is last November — “Nobody wants to read anything more about Trump.” He gets a pass on that. I’ve made mistakes like that in the past. [Note from Moss: That’s not exactly what I said, but it was the gist — wishful thinking on my part. Appreciate the pass, but it was pretty bad judgment on my part.]

Did the media fall down on the job by not taking Trump seriously enough?
I’m not so sure. My article is one example, but there are lots of examples. I was having this discussion the other day with Bob Woodward. I said if someone did an article about Trump molesting a child, it would be ignored, or people would say, “Well, that’s just Donald.” Or his supporters would say, “Well, that’s just the media out to get him.” It’s almost as if the rules don’t apply in a certain way, but if you step back and look at it, we may be able to say this November, well, the rules don’t apply in the sense that anyone who can command that much attention … can get 40 percent of the electorate. If he gets 51 percent of the electorate, that’s a little bit different.

There’s an increasingly palpable terror that it could be 51 percent.
Well, it could be. That has to do with the strength of his opposition. But the press has catalogued, almost as well as you can, that he’s a terrible businessman. He’s never actually run a single operating business that is successful, he’s put his name on things and made some money, not nearly as much money as he says, but they’ve catalogued that. They’ve catalogued Trump University. They caught him not donating to the veterans until the Washington Post said, “What happened to the veterans?” He changes positions on everything. It’s almost as if any single one of 20 different things would have been a disqualifier for anybody else. So that probably says something about the cynicism of a big chunk of the population, which just thinks that the country’s not working anymore and they might as well try something different. His press conferences will be good for a lot of laughs for four years.

But I think the larger question about the state of the media is that at the beginning, the press was certainly slow — well, forget at the beginning. Just the idea, before he ever announced his campaign, just the idea that he was known generally as a successful businessperson. That’s the press’s fault. It’s not that a lot of people haven’t written article — and, in the case of Tim O’Brien, a book — but the general mythology was, “This is a successful businessman.” He still gets up at press conferences and says that he rebuilt the West Side of Manhattan with that giant luxury-apartment complex off the West Side Highway. You own as much of that complex as he does. Literally.

Why does he defy the rules of gravity when Howard Dean can get his entire political career ended because he made a funny noise?
A lot of reporters confuse equivalency with fairness and good reporting. And it is a lot cheaper and a lot less trouble if you call me and say, “What’s the weather out right now?” and I say, “Hmm, actually it’s starting to snow.” And we’re both sitting in midtown Manhattan, you look out your window and you say, “This guy’s nuts, it’s not snowing. It’s May. How could it be snowing?” But if you report that I said it was snowing and someone else said it wasn’t snowing, you’re off the hook, you’ve been fair, but you’ve been a schmuck. It’s not snowing. So when we says that he owns all those buildings on the West Side and built them, and someone says, “Well, actually, other people dispute that,” that’s not a dispute. It’s a fact. The closest we’ve come is when people say, “Well, actually, thousands of Muslims did not get up and cheer in Jersey City. That didn’t happen.”

Is there something we can do about this?
That’s just being lazy. That’s substituting on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand reporting with doing the legwork of journalism. The reason the Trump University didn’t get much traction until I did that Time magazine story was that he would just say, “Well, 98 percent of the people filled out a survey and said it was great.” Well, on his website he has more surveys filled out than he has customers. And his own deposition concedes that a third of the people asked for refunds within a day of taking the course. So how could they have been 98 percent satisfied? You’d have to read the deposition to know that.

But the reality is that people who are being paid $150 per blog post …
It’s not going to happen, you’re right. The other thing about Trump that’s different is there aren’t that many people — and I wrote a book about the Teamsters union, which is about mobsters, and I’ve written about lawyers — there are very few people I’ve come across who will just absolutely lie, who will absolutely say, “It is snowing out right now.” They’ll typically think of some way to kind of get you to where you think it’s snowing but be able to say, “I never said it was snowing.” Reporters and their editors have a tough time dealing with someone who just makes things up.

Putin’s playing a similar game, it seems to me.
You can do that in a place where there isn’t a free press. If you go back to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Adlai Stevenson confronted the Soviet representative to the U.N., who said, “Missiles? What missiles? We don’t have any missiles in Cuba.” But it’s really unusual to see that happening with a prominent figure in the United States who isn’t some guy who’s peddling a penny stock and goes to jail for it.

Will he be a model? Will he be the first of many?
No. Because I think the press will be on someone like that sooner than they were with Trump. They’ll be more on guard. But to come back to your larger question about the state of the media, you probably have to divide it into two types of media, and the two types are blurring. To the type of journalism that depends purely on eyeballs, or at least eyeballs at the moment, Trump is pretty irresistible, certainly in television. The simple fact is, if you’re walking past a television set in your living room and you notice it’s Trump giving a speech or having a press conference, you’re going to stop and say, “Gee, what the hell is he going to say next?” It’s like watching a car accident. You know you shouldn’t rubberneck, but you do rubberneck. In television, that translates into pure dollars and cents. It is really easy for anyone on Morning Joe or the Today show to calculate, “If I have Donald Trump on versus I don’t have Donald Trump on, and even if he’s on the telephone, how many more eyeballs am I going to get, and how is that going to affect my CPMs for the rest of the month?” Not my CPMs, but my revenue; my CPMs will stay the same, but my revenue will go up because I’ll have more Ms. 

Whether you agree or disagree with him, what other politician, if you knew he was going to be talking live for five minutes right now, would you feel more compelled to watch than Donald Trump right now?

The next time, if there are 17 candidates running for the Republican nomination, you can bet that four of them will decide they’re going to be Donald Trump.

There was that brief, painful moment when Marco Rubio tried to be Trump.
He told Jake Tapper recently, “It was embarrassing, I shouldn’t have done it, but I will tell you, it’s the only time they started covering my live speeches.”

Is it that Trump’s got this rare talent that will be difficult to replicate?
I don’t know. He is a rare talent. Here’s a guy who, if he took the money he inherited and put it in a money fund, he’d probably be worth more than he is today. Yet he’s peddling himself as the common man’s bootstrapped billionaire. He’s a total con man. If politicians spend their whole lives as politicians being con men, they often get caught up running for Congress; they get stuck being governor, where they actually have to deliver something; and then they can’t deliver it and get run out of office. He hasn’t had those kinds of hurdles. The message for our politics is that people are really cynical and pissed off about how our country works. In fact, I’m writing a book about that as we speak. It’s a book about how that happened, with real reporting.

One of the themes that keeps emerging is a sense of a lack of agency when it comes to covering Donald Trump. It’s like, “The numbers go up, and I have to cover this thing.”
It’s that. Its also — let’s say CNN decided that every time they were going to cover Donald Trump, they would use chyrons to say whether he’s telling the truth or not. What would happen? The answer is, they might get higher ratings, or the kinds of people who are watching Donald Trump don’t want to hear that. That’s another element of this, which is that — this is a cliché, it’s so obvious — we don’t do things in common anymore. We want to watch the news we like. I understand that: When the Yankees are winning a game, I will watch the whole game, I will watch Joe Girardi after the game talking about how great they were, I will watch all of the 11 o’clock news reports on the game, I will read the Post, the Daily News, and the Times the next day about how the Yankees won. If the Yankees lose, I turn it off in the middle of the game, I watch nothing, I read nothing, I do not want to hear about it. That’s okay, I think, as a baseball fan; not okay as a citizen.

During a stint as an on-air expert, I sensed there wasn’t any particular concern on the part of the producers as to whether what I was saying was true or not.
You want to know the worst thing I ever did on television? During the Clinton impeachment, when I was running Court TV, they asked me to be on Crossfire to talk about whether the deliberations in the Senate, acting as a jury, should be open to cameras. Not the trial itself, but the Senate acting as a jury. So I decided, “Well, gee, you know, it’s the impeachment, yeah, obviously it should be open to cameras. I mean, I run Court TV, of course it should be open to cameras.” So in the car going from my office, which was at 39th Street and Second Avenue, over to the CNN studio, which was then at 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue, I’m thinking about it a little bit and I’m saying, “You know, I’m not so sure about this. Maybe, maybe not.” So I get on the show, and opposite me on Crossfire is the senator from Pennsylvania, pompous asshole — Arlen Specter. So Specter’s arguing that the deliberations should be closed to cameras. And he goes first. And I’m listening to him, and they turn to me and whoever it was says, “Well, Mr. Brill, what do you think?” And I said, “You know, I actually think he’s right. On the way over here, I thought maybe they should, but I think that’s pretty persuasive. I think he’s right.” The producer’s screaming in my ear, “You can’t say that! You can’t do that! You’re never going to be on this show again!”

This is the problem. You can’t just say we should do a better job. All the incentives cut the other way.
Right. But they’ve always in some way cut the other way. Lurid headlines, fighting, always attracts more attention. The question is, how fortified is the press to be responsible? And it’s just in a macro way increasingly less fortified. Less protected. When CBS, ABC, and NBC were an oligopoly doing the news at 6:30 at night and had 91 percent of all the eyeballs in the country between them, there was no way that someone was going say, “Look at these ratings for the missing airplane, let’s do the first 15 minutes with the missing airplane.” There was no way that was going to happen. They didn’t have to; they were subsidized by the fact that the network was rich because it was an oligopoly. And so if NBC beat them by a little bit, or lost by a little bit, it didn’t matter.

What’s your take on the climate change for long-form journalism?
It’s really hard. It’s hard both for magazine articles and it’s arguably more depressing for books. The typical good journalist who has a good idea for an important subject who writes a book now gets a $10,000 or $15,000 or $25,000 or $35,000 advance to do a book with a 5,000- or 10,000-copy printing, if he or she is lucky. One of his friends throws a small book party, and, as one of my friends who just wrote such a book said when I asked how’s it going, “It was the calm before the calm.” That’s not a happy thing. I think the answer ultimately is that there are different forms that will end up injecting some more commerce into play. For example, I sold the rights to a TV serial for this Johnson & Johnson thing I did for the Huffington Post, and it’s going to be made into a long-form serial on one of the alternative networks, shall we say. So there are those kinds of opportunities. I think that podcasts can become a business, I think that the Huffington Post sooner or later — and this is a favorite hobbyhorse of mine — even BuzzFeed, Vice, they’re all going to be forced to charge for their content, because advertising is not going to be able to pay for it.

Especially with Facebook dominating.
Yes. I mean look at the alternative, which is, if you say, “Well, I’m not going to do long-form, I’m not going to do serious stuff, I’m just going to do clickbait.” The thing about the internet is, there is an infinite supply of page views. It keeps growing. And if there’s an infinite supply of something that keeps growing, economics 101 means that the price of that supply keeps going down. So the ad revenue you’re going to get from that goes nowhere. I think native advertising is just a fad, it’s bullshit. When I ran the American Lawyer, they had so-called native advertising, which is advertisers would come to you and say, “I want to do an advertorial at six pages long. Can you make it look like, in terms of typeface and design, your editorial product?” And I’d say “No,” and they’d say, “Why not?” and I’d say, “Because that’ll deceive readers, and if I said ‘Yes,’ sooner or later readers would figure it out and they wouldn’t pay any attention anyway.”

So the idea is you make it and you distinguish it enough that the reader’s not going to touch it.
To the extent that you distinguish it, it has less value to the advertiser because it’s not native. The idea of native means indistinguishable. No one’s going to want to cheapen their product that way for the long term. They may try for the short term, but it’s not going to work. What will work, ultimately, is people paying something for content if the content’s good.

Do you feel like you’ve had to make compromises in your work to get it out the door?
No, I haven’t, but I’m an exception in a bunch of ways, not the least of which is, it’s not like I have to worry about paying the rent. I get very well paid, I insist on getting very well paid for the stuff that I do, but if I didn’t, it would not really affect me very much.

The Transcripts: A Master Class in What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media by Those In the Know

Steven Brill on the Media