Any doubts I had that Steve Brill’s Content was destined to be simply
another cog in the government-media complex were dispelled a few weeks
ago when a reporter for the new magazine called me for an interview.
The reporter told me she had been assigned to do a story on ABC News’
“I understand you gave him an award a few years ago,” she began.
“That’s right,” I said. “In 1994, my organization presented him with
our Warren Brookes award for exposing corruption, waste, abuse and fraud
Brookes, the late syndicated columnist, never accepted government
handouts at face value. Instead, he examined budgets, studied numbers
and dug beneath the superficial public relations facade to uncover
inefficiency, slothfulness and deceit in every aspect of government
reports and programs.
“Well,” Brill’s reporter continued, “what do you think of the
allegations that are being made about Stossel now.”
“Allegations?” I asked. “What allegations are being made about
“Well,” she said, “some people question his ethics.”
“Oh really,” I said. “Who questions John Stossel’s ethics? And what
specifically do they say?”
“Well,” she said, “they say he seems to have an agenda.”
“Who says that?” I demanded, perhaps a little too exuberantly. “And
what do they mean by an agenda?”
She wouldn’t be more specific. Most of those making the charge were
speaking off the record, she said. And I never learned exactly what
these accusers were saying. Then I really got hot.
“Let me tell you something,” I said. “As a media watchdog magazine,
you ought to be doing a story lifting up John Stossel as a journalistic
hero — as a role model for everyone in our business. I don’t agree with
everything he says or does, but he performs his job with integrity. And
he understands the principal role of a free press in a free society is
to serve as a watchdog on government. It’s not to entertain. The
critical public policy function the press plays is to serve as another
check and balance on the power of government. Our Founding Fathers
understood that. That’s why they enshrined special protections for the
press in the First Amendment. Though our entire industry seems to have
lost sight of this objective, John Stossel understands. For that he
should be commended and celebrated for his courageous work that stands
out from the pack — especially among network news reporters.”
The reporter raised the “agenda” issue, again. And I fumed and
sputtered some more.
“Every reporter has an agenda,” I explained. “You have an agenda with
this story. What you want is for every reporter in the country to march
in lockstep with the same agenda. They practically do. But because a
handful of journalists like John Stossel march to the beat of their own
drummer — and perform a valuable public service in the process — you
want to smear him. I think it’s despicable. It’s even more disgraceful
if those making accusations do so under the cowardly cover of
She asked me some more details about the award we gave Stossel, how
the presentation was made, whose idea it was, etc. Then our interview
session was over.
That was my first clue that Brill’s Content would be pushing the
status quo, defending the power brokers, promoting the state — rather
than sincerely scrutinizing the deep institutional flaws in our news
So the ode to Bill Clinton in the first issue was no surprise. It is
even more understandable now that we know Brill is a long-time
Democratic political partisan — having contributed the individual
maximum under the law to Clinton’s 1996 campaign and to anti-gun zealot
Rep. Charles Schumer of New York, among others.
Now we know why a smiling Clinton held up a prototype of the magazine
at last April’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. He knew
reinforcements were on the way.
Rush Limbaugh suggests the accent should be placed on the last
syllable of Brill’s magazine, rather than the first. I think that subtle
pronunciation change illustrates what this publication is all about –
not rocking the boat, not upsetting the applecart, not changing horses
in midstream. That is a very strange mission for any media enterprise –
but especially one which purports to hold the press accountable to a