Brillian mistake

Brill's Content -- deep, serious and above the fray -- is a big snooze.

Published December 15, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Is Brill's Content a good magazine? That is, of course, an understatement. Brill's Content is the good magazine. Steven Brill, former impresario of American Lawyer magazine and Court TV, promised his media magazine would expose lies, unfairness and abuse in "all that purports to be nonfiction," and it sure has, hammering media giants like ABC News and Time magazine for overblown (and underblown) stories, "lynchings" and business-editorial breaches.

But is Brill's Content a good magazine? That is, is it a magazine you'll want to read rather than feel you should read? And is it shallow to think that that matters?

Brillian disclosure: 1) The current issue (December-January) has an extended dialogue on Salon's Henry Hyde controversy; 2) as a media columnist, I'm clearly writing about the competition here. And yet if I'm biased in any way, it's that I want Brill's to succeed, partly for idealistic reasons (truth in reporting = good), partly for mercenary reasons (for a media writer, commercial success of media writing = ka-ching!) and partly because of the unseemly, perhaps nervous, glee with which journalists, perversely eager to prove their own irrelevance, have anticipated its failure. But try saying this with a straight face -- and put down any hot liquids before you do it: "I just read this article in Brill's that blew me away."

I've read every issue of the magazine since it came out, and I can't even imagine it. I am a bad, bad man.

Even Steven Brill, in fact, admitted to the New York Times yesterday that the magazine has too often read like "homework." And indeed, it's only appropriate the name of his magazine sounds like "Gray's Anatomy": It's essentially a textbook, a dry primer that takes a fascinating, sprawling subject and stultifyingly reduces it to empirical analysis, statistics (the magazine is full of checklists, numeric tables and percentages) and labels (an October feature on TV newsmagazines stamps a list of broadcast reports with "Fair" or "Unfair" ratings -- complete with actual smiley and frowny faces) at the expense of wit, depth and cultural awareness.

Now, there's something admirable about Brill's resolute dullness, stolidly opposing the breezy, refined-beyond-comprehension insiderism that characterizes much media reporting. While Vanity Fair and New York magazine's arch medialebrity pieces can practically require a copy of the social register and a map of the Hamptons, Brill's profiles small-town news editors and cable-system programmers in prose as hip as the Farmer's Almanac's. While Feed and Salon offer airy cultural-studies feuilletons, Brill's offers us just the facts. While the New York Observer drops names and downs Manhattans at Balthazar, Brill's Content has a glass of milk and goes to bed at 9:30.

But Brill's country-mouse seriousness is not just a froufrou aesthetic issue. Content isn't a snooze because its writers can't write -- in fact, at earlier gigs staffers like Lorne Manly (the Observer) and Noah Robischon (Netly News) have amply proven they can turn a phrase. Brill's dullness, I believe, is a direct result of its editorial philosophy. The problem: Brill's Content is above all concerned with matters of fact. Period: "We see this as the one black line in everything we are going to write about: Is it true?" At best, this motto has been responsible for some outstanding investigations. But it's a sadly limited approach, because the most interesting issues concerning the media go far beyond "did they get their facts right?"

The result is a narrow, legalistic devotion to facts, of which Brill's Content's bland prose is just a telltale sign. A strong October piece, for instance, on "Dateline NBC's" exaggerated claims that its reports have sent people to jail reads: "To ape a bit of 'Dateline's' rhetorical style: A Brill's Content investigation has uncovered the shocking real story." Now, that would be a clever enough little flourish -- if it weren't for that clumsy "To ape a bit ..." clause, which totally kills the joke. Nit-picking? Maybe. But having read a half year of Brill's, I don't think that gloss was an accident. Without it, you see, someone could misread the sentence. Someone could believe that Brill's Content -- Brill's Content! -- was brazenly engaging in the same sort of overblown hype that it was criticizing "Dateline" for. Hypocrisy! Perfidy! The magazine is edited as though any unglossed sarcasm or dry humor is misleading, dangerous and possibly unethical. Likewise with its famously bloated features, like Steven Brill's endless "Pressgate" article on the Monica Lewinsky feeding frenzy in the premiere issue; the magazine seems so suspicious of gatekeeping that it regards editing as dishonest.

This follow-up to American Lawyer is a lawyerly magazine, devoted to exhaustive detail and, above all, facts and figures. You can count on Brill's to give you features like "Credentials": bios of media professionals that say, for instance, how many criminal cases various TV legal analysts have tried to a verdict -- implying that you can put a numeric figure on a talking head's qualifications. But is George Terwilliger III seven times more deserving of our attention than the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin because he leads 75 to 11? What effect does their omnipresence have on the political culture? How can networks better serve people's obviously vast interest in legal information? Tellingly, on its last page, the soul of a magazine -- where other publications showcase art or photography or columnists -- Brill's closes with a Harper's Index-style list of stats.

The righteous response, I guess, is that facts speak for themselves. But they don't always speak best. Take the September feature on "This American Life," Ira Glass' public-radio hour of long-format personal narrative, the last third of which weirdly fixates on whether "TAL's" precious tales are factually reliable. Brill's notes that Stephen Glass (gasp!) did three pieces for the show -- though two were retellings of New Republic articles that weren't shown to be fabricated -- then gives essayist David Sedaris the white-glove test, revealing, shockingly, that some humorists are given to exaggeration. In Sedaris' radio story about his sister Amy wearing a "fatty suit" on a visit home to mortify her weight-obsessed father, "Amy revealed to her distraught father that the fat was fake on the morning of her departure, even though in reality she let her father in on the joke about seven hours into the first day of a three- or four-day visit." (So was it three or four days, Mr. Sedaris? -- if that is your real name!)

Ultimately, Brill's gives the program its pious, sternly qualified approbation: "Brill's Content checked two seemingly outrageous stories that have aired on the show -- a finger puppet opera written in Italian that tells the story of Chicken Little and a workshop that teaches women how to act like men. Both were accurate."

Well, thank God. Now, maybe it's unfair to critique a relatively brief (for Brill's -- it's two full pages), light profile this way, when Brill's has used the same exacting approach in many excellent investigative reports. But the magazine itself doesn't make that distinction, and that's why it comes off so prim and absolutist. Like Kenneth Starr, with whom Brill has famously squabbled, Brill's Content seems to believe that there is no such thing as a little lie.

It's that "one black line" of truth again. Thing is, there is no one black line; there are sometimes more important questions than empirical matters of fact, and Brill's does not seem to know how to deal with these. Even granting that "This American Life's" militantly winsome narratives might contain a whopper or two, does Brill's have nothing better to do than sleuth out finger-puppet operas? It could, like Suck, look at the show's appeal to "stylish hipsters who secretly enjoy hearing 'Most interesting character I ever met' stories, but wouldn't be caught dead with Readers Digest." It could examine the cultural significance of the memoir craze that fuels "This American Life," or look in depth at the difference between "TAL" and the rest of middlebrow public-radio programming.

But these are subjective questions, and Brill's has no truck with speculative hooey that you can't back up with numbers. As a result, Brill's is like a music magazine that writes only about lyrics, a media-criticism magazine without criticism. In its current feature looking at 24 hours in the life of the cable news channels, what should have been a rich, provocative topic instead becomes eight chart-laden pages of math in lieu of analysis ("MSNBC devoted 235 minutes to the president ... the Kenyan bombing got 22 minutes on Fox ... from 9:47 to 9:54 ... total minutes ... zzzzzz ...").

Brill is right to tell us that nobody is above the truth -- but there's more to truth than facts. If Brill's continues to wear its Consumer Reports plainness like a badge of honor, it will be the death of its mission. For Brill's Content is its own test case: the first magazine edited according to the principles of Brill's Content. By churning out one soporific doorstop after another, it is effectively telling editors that if you follow Dr. Brill's Patented System for Quality Journalism, you will produce a boring magazine. Is Brill's Content a good magazine? Indisputably. So far, it is too damn good for all of us.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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