USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC

Where Have You Gone, Bill Kovach?
'Conscience of Journalism' says nothing while his employer, Brill's Content, sweeps huge ethical violations under the rug.

Related Stories: Background on Contentville

May was supposed to be the issue where the 22-month-old 'media watchdog' magazine Brill's Content published a critical self-evaluation about the controversial new e-commerce business it is launching with several of the companies it scrutinizes (including CBS and NBC).

The $100 million venture, called Contentville, will recommend and sell media products like subscriptions, books and television transcripts; it will be edited by BC editor in chief David Kuhn, and overseen by Steven Brill himself. (For background and my arguments against this set-up, click here).

Since sharing profits -- not to mention office space, content and staff -- with the subjects you cover is a basic journalistic no-no, it seemed reasonable to expect some explanation from the magazine that routinely nitpicks reporters and publications for the tiniest of imagined sins.

Indeed, Editor Eric Effron wrote me an e-mail March 2 explaining that the new issue would be so filled with material related to Contentville, there wouldn't be any room for the column he commissioned from me criticizing Brill's new scheme.

'Because we're getting letters on this subject, plus it looks like our independent ombudsman is jumping in, we've determined that it would be overkill (and appear too self-involved) to have yet another piece in the mag devoted to this topic,' he wrote.

So what's in the May issue? Exactly one (1) letter about Brill's new conflict. That's it.

There's no article, no column from in or outside the newsroom, no declarations from the new editor-in-chief (who replaced Brill one day after the Conflictville announcement); no acknowledgment in Effron's 'Big Blur' column, which regularly tracks the 'blurring' of traditional journalistic boundaries.

The only other reference in the whole magazine is a new 'disclosure' paragraph under the corrections policy stating -- falsely -- that 'the two ventures are separate' and that there is 'an indirect connection between the magazine and these companies.' This parrots nearly verbatim the brazenly dishonest final paragraph of Steve Brill's column of the previous issue, which was in turn the only other real explanation of Contentville to be found anywhere in Brill's Content.

So much for 'overkill.'

Worst and most bafflingly of all, the new developments at Brill Media Holdings have not elicited one single comment from Brill's aforementioned 'independent ombudsman,' Bill Kovach. The man christened by Editor & Publisher Feb. 28 as 'The Conscience of Journalism,' instead spent his monthly column discussing -- I am not making this up -- whether the magazine should have accepted a History Channel advertisement that pictured a dying Robert Kennedy.

Asleep at the Wheel

I have written previously here about how the Contentville deal compromises Brill's believability, and how his first issue afterward reeked of fearless hypocrisy. (Real gluttons for punishment can even read the column of mine Brill's spiked).

The new issue contains dozens of pieces that merit conflict-disclosures, based on guidelines suggested last year by Brill himself, but two instances stand out: A Harold Bloom essay praising classic literature, and an Internet-privacy warning by Charles Jennings and Lori Fena.

Both are excerpts from forthcoming books. In its 18 previous issues combined, Brill's Content has run an excerpt from a forthcoming book exactly once. Both books are being published by divisions of Simon & Schuster, which is owned by Viacom, CBS' soon-to-be parent company (CBS owns 35% of Contentville). Since plans to recommend and excerpt books, then provide buy-buttons to facilitate (and take a cut of) the purchase, Steve Brill (who told the New York Times he will still edit everything in the magazine) has a direct financial interest in promoting these books, two times over.

Yet there are no conflict disclosures here or anywhere else in the issue. Instead, we are instructed in the corrections policy box that 'any complaints about perceived bias by the magazine in favor of NBC, CBS, or [Contentville partner] Primedia should also be directed to Mr. Kovach.'

Leave aside for the moment the fact that Brill, Effron and Kovach have all written previously and at length about how conflicts-of-interest are far more widespread, subtle and difficult to pinpoint than instances of direct bias toward direct business partners. What has Kovach said publicly about Contentville since Brill's Feb. 2 announcement?

The only quote I've seen from the guy anywhere, was this disturbing passage in the Feb. 7 Editor & Publisher: 'When reached for comment, Kovach told E&P he hoped that the partnership wouldn't cause any problems, but said only time would tell. 'All of these new business relationships, interlocking relationships, among news organizations and organizations outside the news are a little bit troubling, and I'll just have to wait and see how it works out,' Kovach observed. Kovach said he is concerned with the moves toward consolidation that the media seem to be making, and admits that the partnership places Brill's Content in a precarious position.

'It raises questions about whether or not favoritism is going to be shown to the organizations you have a financial relationship with or, on the other hand, a much more jaundiced eye cast on the ones you don't have a relationship with,' said Kovach. But he maintained that he and the staff will endeavor to root out any influence that crops up. 'What I've agreed to do ... is to take on the added responsibility of being available to the staff of Brill's Content to notify me ... any time they think they're being asked to do something that in any way reflects pressure from this new organization,' he said.

We've come to expect this sort of justification two-step ('everyone else is doing it, it sure is confusing nowadays, but I'm a man of honor!') from the Chinese Wall-demolishing likes of Brill's Editor-in-Chief David Kuhn, ex-L.A. Times publisher Mark Willes and Time Editor/AOL underling Walter Isaacson. But to hear it from the mouth of American journalism's First Ethicist is just plain sad.

In the 10 weeks since Contentville was unveiled, Bill Kovach has been quoted by the national press on the sale of the Los Angeles Times, the earnings gap between journalists and normal Americans, the (pernicious) effects of media consolidation, and even the 'importance' of ombudsmen. He has been given a 'Career Award for Excellence in Journalism' by Harvard (excerpts from his speech were published in the Boston Globe), and flattered by a 3,500-word Q&A with Editor & Publisher. He has continued to perform his duties as curator of Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism, and chairman of the Committee for Concerned Journalists; and he has written two columns for Brill's Content, covering such topics as the definition of journalism, the magazine's letters policy and the proper job title for Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Wilmington.

In that vast volume of verbiage, the only mention of Steve Brill jumping into bed with his subjects is the aforementioned E&P quote.

It is clear that Steve Brill wants to make this controversy go away by ignoring it. In his few public statements defending Contentville, he has repeatedly stressed four things: the 'separate' nature of the two ventures, his own unquestionable integrity, the 'independence' contracts he is forcing his partners to sign, and Bill Kovach's 'expanded portfolio.' He has even had the audacity to propose that 'various governmental benefits given to the media [should] be conditioned on their having ombudsmen.'

It's easy to see why. Brill is using Kovach's good name to defend the indefensible. Before that name loses its lustre, I would urge the man behind it to heed his own words, written in the inaugural issue of this star-crossed magazine:

'Brill's Content must ... match or top in its own performance the standard it applies to others. It will be my job to challenge the editors, writers, and owners of Brill's Content by calling on them to account for the way in which that standard is set and applied.'