Brill's Content opens eyes, zips up wallet

When it comes to running stories about how much money media figures make, the watchdog magazine apparently figures "full disclosure" doesn't apply.

Published April 20, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The May issue of Brill's Content makes a play for readers' attention with an offering only slightly less tried and true than free beer and lap dances: a 12-page layout spilling the salaries of media figures great and small -- Bernard Shaw ($1.1 million) to Nina Totenberg ($80-85,000, not counting speaking fees) to a Slate editorial assistant ($25,000). According to editor Eric Effron, the enterprise took the staff several weeks to put together because of the natural reticence of folks in the business to flash their pay stubs. But "is this stuff any of our (or your) business?" the magazine asks. "We answer yes."

Which raises the $X,000 question. The precise dollar value of that question must remain unstated, however, because the roundup neglects to mention the salary of editor in chief Steven Brill, the magazine's management or any other position at the media watchdog. That is, salaries at the very magazine taking that principled stance do not appear to be any of our (or your) business. If the point of the feature is that consumers are better served by knowing the finances of those they read, hear and watch -- and Brill's Content is the single magazine that one can be sure 100 percent of the feature's readers are reading -- what could be more relevant?

As you might have guessed, the question had not escaped editors at the magazine. "As a general rule, we don't report on ourselves," Effron said. "In articles we write about other media we could almost always turn around and say something about ourselves ... I don't really think our readers expect us to do that." Obviously, Brill's knows its own employees' salaries, but "as a function of confidential relationships," he said. "We couldn't breach those confidences, and so it would have been a matter of putting pressure on people who work for us to reveal their own salaries."

Fair enough, but isn't it curious -- in a magazine admirably committed to providing exhaustive disclosure, explanations and explanations of explanations -- that the piece doesn't even explain the omission? "We will address that in our next issue," Effron said. "I think we should have. There's always a little hesitation to get super-self-referential, and we resist that, but I think in this case it would have been appropriate."

Perhaps it's simply yet another no-win situation for a natural criticism magnet. Of course, revealing its salaries would have been a no-win too. What if they were comparatively high? A magazine that depends on a reputation for casting out the money-changers could be hurt if its readers believed its staff was living like the court of the Sun King. If they were low? A magazine dogged from day one by doubts about its viability could be seen as lowballing its staff and thus weak -- and it could invite poaching by rivals, after having already seen a number of high-profile staff departures in the last year. (And if they were right down the middle? Then -- horrors! -- it could appear just like everyone else.)

None of which keeps Brill's, which has published shorter items on media salaries before this, from dishing on the rest of the trade. And insofar as it goes, the feature certainly includes eye-poppers: For instance, Brian Williams ($2 million) earns almost 27 times what a producer on his MSNBC news program does. (For the record, Brill's reported the salary range for a senior editor at Salon as $60-90,000, a figure I haven't personally gotten close enough to any of my colleagues' pay stubs to verify.) Conversely, editor Charles Peters of the Washington Monthly cops to a $10,000 -- no, there are no zeroes missing there -- annual payday. ("Peters swears this is true," reads a footnote.)

The figures are grouped by medium -- TV, radio, magazines, newspapers and online -- and run all the way down to little-knowns like Robert Hornacek, reporter at KTEN-TV, Sherman, Texas ($15,000). Effron defended the decision to identify such small fry: "In their market, they're public figures."

Speaking of little-knowns, this is, of course, the point at which I either boldly tell you my own income or tell you why I'm not, and, sorry, I'm opting for the latter. But boy, do I have a complicated rationalization! Laying out your finances can be embarrassing, sure, but that's only part of the calculus. You can lose credibility with readers who think you earn too much, or too little. But it can also be self-serving: It's not only a stunt with tremendous aren't-I-brave value, but one could use it, under the fig leaf of disclosure (oxymoron alert), as a not-so-subtle bargaining tool -- a means of setting a minimum bid for potential future suitors. As Brill's astutely notes (with quasi-revolutionary phrasing), "in the end, the secrecy most serves the interest of the bosses."

Jesus, disclosure's exhausting; and I didn't even reveal anything.

Ultimately, said Effron, the magazine wanted to show readers precisely how much the media market values different kinds of work. Of course the fact that publishing a person's salary is as powerful an eyeball trap as publishing nude pictures of them -- in the case of, say, Larry King ($7 million), far bigger -- doesn't hurt either. "There's no harm in reminding people just how rich some of these people are," he said. "It would be crazy to imagine that people's work and their worldview is not affected by the class that they're in."

And as for Brill's worldview ... well, keep guessing.

By James Poniewozik

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

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