Stay Tuned/Of Biases and Lies

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

Of Biases and Lies
14 September 1999

I am not fond of the magazine Brill's Content. In fact, I was going to spend this whole column referring to them as Brill's Discontent, but then I realized that some of you might not have encountered this magazine, and that I owed it to them to give their right name.

In the above paragraph, I have revealed my biases and allegiances beforehand. That way, as you read the rest of this column, you'll know which of my words to take with a grain of salt. (Answer: all of them.)

But even if I hadn't bothered to disclaim up front, I believe you would have figured out my stance on Brill's pretty quickly, from context ... because I believe you're smart that way. And I don't think I'd have been doing anything wrong even if I didn't warn you. This is an opinion column, so presumably you know what to expect when you arrive.

The two paragraphs above exist for a reason, which will become clear as you read on.

Brill's ("The Independent Voice of the Information Age") makes itself out to be a media watchdog. I have no problem with the idea of there being a watchdog, but - page Juvenal - I want a background check on the motivations of the watchdog.

On the first copy page of every Brill's, they print their little manifesto "What We Stand For." I'm going to paraphrase it here because it's written in elegant but bulky language (for example, their first point takes forty-two words for my six):

1. Accuracy. If it's nonfiction, it shouldn't lie.

2. Labeling and Sourcing. If the accuracy of the sources is limited or dubious, the reader should be told.

3. Conflicts of Interest. Journalism should not have any motive other than informing its readers.

4. Accountability. Journalists should take responsibility for their work and correct it as needed.

I agree completely with all of this. My problem is that I'm not sure what this has to do with Brill's. In the particular issue I'm dissecting (September 1999) the feature stories are: A profile of TV pundit Chris Matthews of Hardball; a piece excerpted from a book by Jack Germond, mostly about why he left The McLaughlin Group, mostly dissing McLaughlin and his ego; Deborah Tannen maintains that hot-seat pundit shows like the two above are more about argument than honest debate; an article on the ruthless marketing machine behind Austin Powers tie-ins; and an article about bias in Consumer Reports.

I'll discuss the latter separately, but take a moment to consider the others. The Matthews piece is a straight profile; it wouldn't be out of place in Life magazine, except that Life wouldn't write about anyone that boring. There is no media commentary in it at all. The Germond bit is just an excuse to start a fight - otherwise why let Germond air dirty laundry for free? (The article notes at the end that McLaughlin has been offered an opportunity to respond - which is fair, to be sure - but, oh, how Brill's must be hoping he'll fire back!)

The Tannen article is very close to being genuine media analysis ... although, cynic that I am, I again suspect the watchdogs - the whole thing is a little bit too much of a plug for her most recent book, The Argument Culture. (That phrase is used six or seven times in the article.) It's a good article - Tannen always writes well - but I know she's not as naive as the questions she asks here. ("Where do [producers] get the idea that watching fights is fun?" Oh, I don't know, Deborah. Perhaps from the audience? Seen the stats on pro wrestling lately?) This leads me to wonder why the questions are really being asked.

The Austin Powers article is beneath contempt. First off, it isn't even about journalism. It's about advertising. And its conclusions are tame: Movies make a lot of money from merchandising tie-ins! There's a huge hype mechanism built expressly to sell you stuff! Studios and manufacturers collude to sell merchandise!

Anyone here who is the least bit surprised by any of those three statements, raise your hands. I mean, is this obvious, or is it just me? Furthermore, frankly, I believe that's what movie merchandising is supposed to do: Sell merchandise. It's as if they're trying to indict advertising for wanting to sell things. But an ad which does not sell successfully is a bad ad. I don't see any dishonesty here, nor anything which conflicts with Brill's Declaration of Principles.

In fact, both this piece and the Tannen piece are attempts to trump up indignation against an easy target that shouldn't have been fired upon - or at least not for those reasons. And the only reason Brill's can possibly have to stir up the embers is to sell magazines. Hello! Hidden agenda! If you can fire on TV pundit shows for offering a good fight, or on ads for wanting to sell you something, then surely it's fair to fire on Brill's for wanting to sell magazines. By their standards, the latter is as big a cause for outcry as the other two. By my standards, none of them are.

I believe there is a difference between having an agenda and telling lies. I don't believe that anyone who's seen more than one airing of the McLaughlin slugfest has any doubt what that show's about. It's not about debate, that's for sure. I certainly don't think it's in doubt that McLaughlin has an ego - but when a defector says that, ooh, doesn't that just get the scandal detectors humming? And doesn't it sell magazines?

Brill's is muckraking, plain and simple. The magazine is a scandal sheet pretending to be a journalistic watchdog. And what's odd is that it's the facade, not the content, I object to.

I like scandal. I'm perfectly capable of reading it for what it is, and enjoying it as such. Their writing is almost always good. I don't have to have the cloak of higher aspirations to assuage my guilt at wanting the dirt. I'll just take the dirt, hold the cover story.

But Brill's has got to decide what they want to be. Take their Consumer Reports article. If Brill's is just raking muck, just causing sensation, then I can't object to this article. If they're media watchdogs, on the other hand, then they're not being fair. They can't have it both ways.

The case made against CR boils down to this: Apparently CR is sometimes especially harsh against certain kinds of products they are predisposed to dislike. SUV's, pesticides, and certain kinds of plastics are the items specifically given as examples.

Brill's notes that CR often takes donations from private foundations, and that some of those foundations have stated agendas which mesh with CR's findings - for example, foundations whose goal is to reduce pesticide use.

Brill's goes to some extent to paint CR in monstrous terms. "[Its] power to make or break a product understandably strikes fear in the hearts of manufacturers. Many companies are so apprehensive about its power that they will make only the blandest of comments about [it]." Are we talking about a magazine here, or the Mafia?

The thing is, while Brill's makes much of CR's impartiality, I believe they misinterpret the magazine's agenda - perhaps deliberately, my watchdog-watching mind says. CR has a known bias: It is biased in favor of consumer protection. In fact, it is something of a zealot on the subject, frequently choosing protections which are harsher than required. CR is a suspicious publication which prefers to ban first and do further research later. The important thing is, I believe they do not conceal this from their readers.

For example, I don't believe that CR has made a secret of the fact that they have a strong anti-SUV or anti-pesticide bias. CR has filed motions with the government relating to SUVs some four or five times now; every time they do, they tell their readers. I believe that they'd ban SUVs outright if they could. (I'm more moderate; I just want them to be taxed so high that people think twice about buying more car than they need.)

Under the circumstances, it is neither damaging nor particularly surprising that CR would have accepted money from a foundation with an anti-pesticide agenda, any more than the outcome of their pesticide report was a surprise. CR is an outlet for a particular viewpoint. As such, they are permitted to have friends with similar causes.

What may be confusing Brill's - or, again, what they may have deliberately chosen to blur, for the sake of scandal - is that Consumer Reports is not really journalism. It is advocacy. It has never pretended to be anything else. Its impartiality rules are not just to ensure that it doesn't favor one manufacturer over another; they are mostly to assure its readers that it will never sell out to the Big Nasty Corporations. There are readers who cheer every time CR scuttles another manufacturer's product line - those who want CR to sink its teeth into as many corporate backsides as possible. None of this is secret. And none of it is deceptive.

To underscore this distinction: If it were revealed that CR had been taking money from Chevrolet or Nabisco or someone, then there would be a legitimate reason to fuss and fume. There'd be reason, even if CR didn't seem to be showing bias to Chevy or Nabisco products in reviews. In the CR worldview, Chevy and Nabisco are The Enemy, and conspiracy with the enemy is always a serious matter. But taking money from the Natural Resources Defense Council (which wants to keep plastics seepage out of the environment) is not. The two are on the same side.

The only real allegation in this article is that CR may have falsified its data when testing the Suzuki Samurai for rollover in 1988. If that were true, then it would be a serious charge; that would be a lie, not a bias. But CR has denied any such acts, and frankly, I don't believe they would do so. So hand me some proof, Brill's - some real reporting instead of this empty-air stuff - and make me believe it. That's a less dubious way of selling magazines, but it requires a lot more work.

This is going to seem like a sudden change of direction, but it's time we got back to advertising. It ends up in the same place anyway.

While sorting my mail the other day, I saw a legal notice in the pile. I have no idea how long it had been lying there. It was a notice of a class action suit between Publishers Clearing House and anyone who has received materials in the mail from them between February 1992 and June 1999 - in other words, most of the adult United States population.

Don't worry, you're not missing out on any compensatory cash, unless you're one of a "subclass" of plaintiffs who actually bought magazines from them during that period. Most of us just threw the things in the trash as usual - and all we latter folks are entitled to is newer and clearer practices and procedures from PCH ... and, one assumes, a heartfelt apology. Basically, PCH is being legally ordered to clean up its act.

What did they do? Well: "Named Plaintiffs claim that Defendants engaged in deceptive practices by, among other things, using sweepstakes solicitations to mislead Named Plaintiffs and the Settlement Class into purchasing magazines and merchandise under the mistaken belief that doing so would improve their chances of winning cash and prizes." Couldn't have said it better myself.

PCH is not allowed to offer people who buy stuff from them better odds in their sweepstakes than the people who don't. This runs afoul of the same laws which force manufacturers to provide alternate means of entry when they don't want to send in the candy bar wrapper, et cetera. It's the "no-purchase-required" law. A sweepstakes where a purchase is required - or where a purchase provides different odds - is a lottery. Lotteries are subject to special gambling regulation in this country.

If PCH isn't allowed to give their purchasers better odds, then it's deceptive of them to suggest that buying magazines might improve those odds. It's a lie. And if they've actually done this (I haven't actually read their packets in some years - I got burnout), then I approve of a court ordering them to clean up their act.

But if someone came into court and said, "Hey, I thought these people wanted to put me in a contest to win lots of money, but what they really wanted to do was sell me magazine subscriptions!" they'd be laughed out of the building. You are expected to know that PCH makes its money by selling you stuff. You are expected to read the fine print and know how horribly, mathematically atrocious your odds of winning are. PCH, for their part, is obligated to provide you with those odds. See the distinction? If they don't give you the odds correctly, they're negligent and liable; if you don't read them and absorb them, you're just being stupid.

I hope no one has any illusions about what advertising is, or what it is trying to do. I hope that no one really believes that using the new toothpaste will instantly net you a sexy new boy/girlfriend. And presumably no articles will appear in Brill's about this.

What an advertiser can't do is make explicit claims that the product does something it can't do. "Explicit" is the key word. If the toothpaste commercial shows the hero/ine walking off arm-in-arm with his/her new flame, that's okay - but if the ad claims aloud, or in print, "Gets you a new lover within five days!" that's a lawsuit.

All told, my problem with reporting on bias - and therefore, my problem with much of Brill's - is that I assume everyone and everything has biases of some sort ... and that, furthermore, those biases are usually quite obvious to any bystander. So what good does commenting on them do? Maybe to make people aware of them who weren't before - but, again, is there anyone who doesn't know what McDonald's agenda is, or NBC's, or Paramount's?

Only journalists - and I mean news journalists, not feature writers or columnists or others like that - have to keep their writing free of bias. Only journalists should have to answer to the kinds of accusations Brill's is good at firing off. And, despite all of this ranting and raving, I do not dislike Brill's - on principle. I just wish they'd confine themselves to journalism, where they might be useful, instead of stirring the muck where they're not applicable.

But I don't see anything in their Declaration about "not looking under the wrong rugs," so I guess they're not being deceptive. By my own standards, I can't complain.

By Brill's standards, I just did.


[March 2007:] Brill's Content closed in 2001. Apparently - I learned later - a number of the sins of the magazine were actually sins of its founder, Steven Brill. I'm not going to go further than that on my own, because here's a Michael Wolff column from New York magazine in September 1998, which more or less says everything I'd have wanted to say. (Brill's people decided they wanted to harass Wolff over his new book. When Wolff decided, bemusedly, to watch the watchmen, Brill was markedly unamused - a man who can give but not take.)

A couple of key quotes, mostly because I'm amazed to find the Wolff article still available at this late date and don't assume it will remain so:

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.

[...] 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 [...]"

Brill's other big media project was Court TV, which at least has no hypocrisy about what it sells: Scandal. (They are the people who back The Smoking Gun, among other things.) By the by, Brill no longer is involved with Court TV - which may be why it's still around. Another chunk of Wolff:

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.

It is always reassuring to me when someone with better credentials than I have smells a rat in the same place I do.

Anyway, it's gone now, so all this is just a note for posterity.

and now back to our program

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