Wolff’s Brill’s Content

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.

His first venture, American Lawyer, launched in 1978, was dedicated to arbitrating the professional behavior of lawyers. As the bête noire of the legal community, Brill cut a vivid figure: a bouncerlike, cigar-smoking, bullying, crass-comic character in a Saul Bellow novel; part journalist, part wheeler-dealer, part power broker. It wasn’t just lawyers whom he antagonized, either. The magazine New York Woman ran a story about the worst places for women to work, flatly stating that the story did not include jobs “inherently loathsome for men and for women, such as working in a subway booth, scrubbing floors or working for Steven Brill, the notoriously bullying editor of American Lawyer.

Brill’s bid to build a legal-publishing empire foundered on his expansion plans (he spent $30 million to $40 million on local legal newspapers), and in 1988, Warner’s Steve Ross agreed to bail him out. What Brill sold Ross was a new idea: the law as tabloid television. Under the auspices of Time Warner (after Ross agreed to buy American Lawyer, the Time Warner deal happened), Brill launched Court TV, which, post-O.J., found itself at the bottom of the cable ratings.

The mantra inside Time Warner whenever Brill’s name came up was “Has this guy ever made money?”

A year ago, having decided it did not want his legal publications and did not want him to run Court TV, Time Warner ousted Brill with a reported $20 million payoff for his remaining stake – in media-mogul terms, a relative pittance. Certainly not enough to buy yourself another company.

With the help of Howard Milstein, of the real-estate Milsteins, investment banker Lester Pollack, and Barry Diller (can you run a media-watchdog magazine when your partner is a media mogul?), Brill began Brill’s Content.

“Once you come up with a couple of ideas that work, people will usually finance the next one no matter how dumb it is,” Brill told the New York Times.

And certainly on its magazine-business basics, Brill’s Content is dumb. Try finding 500,000 subscribers to a magazine about ethical conduct. In fact, the idea is so dumb that you have to assume there is another strategy here beyond circulation and advertising.

His choosing to call the magazine Content (Brill says the magazine changed the name to Brill’s Content because of trademark issues), that awkward word that technologists use to describe the non-code stuff that augments software, is noteworthy. I think it’s fair to assume Brill’s Content’s business model works like an Internet business model. The proposed $25 million investment in the magazine seems clearly designed to grab “mindshare,” to build brand. And the brand is Brill.

My guess is that Brill is trying to create an official seal of approval – to become the independent prosecutor of information. (Indeed, I received a written set of interrogatories from Brill’s reporter. Example: “Dinner in SF – it’s midnight for you and you stay up most of the night – how did you get the right quotes from the people at the table?”) Information’s independent prosecutor is a very frightening thought, but it could also be an incredibly valuable one.

In its most benign form, it could be a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. We in the Brill Labs have tested this nonfiction and find that its sourcing methods and general probity conform to our standards. It is easy to imagine that Yahoo, for instance, could “partner” with Brill or “co-brand” with Brill. Brill would provide the editorial “brand” on the vast streams of content running through the global network. FEATURING ONLY BRILL’S CONTENT would flash across participating Websites.

I have seen this business plan many times – numerous entrepreneurs believe that the market demands a way to regulate the anarchy of content. We need a global editor (editor-in-chief of the world) to tell us what information we can trust. What this plan has always lacked is someone with the certainty and aggressiveness to say, I can tell you what’s true and what isn’t! Brill’s Content, Brill says, “is about all that purports to be nonfiction. So it should be no surprise that our first principle is that anything selling itself to you as nonfiction should be true.”

Still, Brill has overreached before. If I were making suggestions about his business plan, I’d say the whole of nonfiction is a grab. Apparently, Brill doesn’t want just television news or newspaper reporting. Brill wants everything that is not a novel or a poem to fall under his stamp of approval – that is, news, essays, magazine features, memoirs, documentaries, history, criticism, speeches, polls, news-group postings, editorial cartoons, and the Bible, as well as a good deal of humor, satire, and parody. All this turned over to Brill’s young reporters.

“Our approach,” Brill says, “is to look at nonfiction media as a consumer product.”

For me, having written a book that is both true and satirical, one that, in the venerable tradition of satire, shamelessly settles many scores, it is something of a literary comedy or nightmare to be dogged by a young reporter calling up the various people I have savaged to get them to say, Yes, Michael Wolff is a person of questionable morals.

Indeed. Alan Patricof, the New York venture capitalist and Clinton host and contributor who is a figure of some derision in my book (and who is or is not an acquaintance of Brill’s), and who is represented by the noted First Amendment lawyer Marty Garbus (who is or is not an acquaintance of Brill’s), is soliciting me to change certain passages about him in future editions of my book. Part of the inducement is that if I agree to make such changes, Patricof, Garbus suggests, will not talk to the Brill reporter who has contacted him regarding the story about me.

And then: Brill’s young reporter seems to believe I’ve made up the figure in my book of the smarmy AOL executive (I wish) who seduced me with deals that never got done. Though I decided for various soft-hearted reasons to spare this person public disclosure, now, according to Brill, in order to preserve my own reputation, I should name him.

“Why didn’t you name names?” Brill’s young reporter asked, oblivious to the echo.

The reversals, inversions, and conflicts are breathtaking. The level of full disclosure that’s required is Jesuitical. I suppose I should disclose that the more Brill criticizes my book the more books I sell; likewise, the more I rail against him, the more Brill Brill becomes. Brill, of course, is using the media to make a spectacle of himself covering the media. Brill is shocked, shocked; I am shocked, shocked that he is shocked, shocked. What Brill is showing us is not the backstage view of how the media really works, but the levers and cranks by which almost everyone, most of all Brill himself, gets hoisted by his own petard.

Building brand, or making a name for yourself, is largely a function of aligning yourself with the Zeitgeist. As the Zeitgeist turns, Brill chose to go with Starr not Clinton – with the prosecutor, not the rogue. Maybe he’s picked right, although I hope not.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com.

Wolff’s Brill’s Content