Steven Brill, Winner of the Peter Kihss Award, Discussed American Lawyer, Court TV, and NewsGuard, at the April Meeting
by David A. Andelman
When I first started on night rewrite at The New York Times in the spring of 1970, Peter Kihss sat several rows in front of me—a gulf that seemed all but unbridgeable at the time. But not for Peter. For him, even a twenty-something novitiate was someone worth cultivating, mentoring. There was, for instance, the time night metro editor George Barrett sent us both out to the Lower East Side to find some Latino victims of a particularly horrific housing disaster. Peter, with your humble servant in tow, knocked on any number of doors, in each case launching quietly, gently but fluently into the Spanglish dialogue that was the lingua franca of the Hispanic community we were seeking to penetrate. I looked on in awe. The Latino street language that he had taught himself patiently paid off with a brilliant narrative that made page one the next day.
Steven Brill, winner of the 2023 Silurian’s Peter Kihss Award, is the antithesis of a gentle mentor. As Silurian board member David Margolick, instrumental in proposing Brill for the award and a product of the Brill style of journalism, observed in introducing him, “Brill read stories closely, marked them up, and demanded more—not always very nicely. Of all the Kihss winners, I suspect he is the least like Peter Kihss himself….In fact, it’s hard to imagine two journalists more different from one another. Peter Kihss was soft-spoken, avuncular, modest, Steve Brill is none of those things. But there are different styles of mentoring, and one is by example. Brill leaned hard on his people and got great work out of them. Which is why the top news organizations routinely picked them off. Then he’d go out and find some more.”
Under the inimitable questioning of Myron Kandel, Brill began by reminiscing about his start in the news business—especially his profile of two upstart law firms launched by Jews and shunned by the industry’s titans, Skadden Arps and Wachtel Lipton. “That led to my getting the idea to start the American Lawyer magazine,” Brill recalled. “Okay, you’re a lawyer. Your wife’s a lawyer. I’m actually not a lawyer. I always have to remind people that I never took the bar exam because if you go to Yale Law School, you learn absolutely nothing that has anything to do with any bar exam.” Instead, he became a journalist and, as it happens, a serial entrepreneur. “I’ve always thought the central challenge you know of anyone’s life is to do well and do good,” Brill continued. “So that’s the way I measure it.”
Doing good, in fact, defined much of the rest of his career, and doing well came along, too. “My wife and I endowed a journalism program at Yale,” Brill recalled, that “should not be anything like a journalism school—which I think is completely useless.” That contradicts, incidentally, the view of our January luncheon speaker, Columbia Journalism’s new dean Jelani Cobb.
“What it should do is teach people how to be reporters, give them a credential, which you can’t get at an Ivy League school because Ivy League schools pride themselves on not being trade schools, but give them a credential that would help them get the jobs in journalism that they should want.” And it’s worked handsomely, since “the ones that I’ve taught, it would be about 300, I’d say half of them are working journalists. To a large part that’s because once these people are placed, then I just harassed them to help me get new people hired.”
After that, there was the hiring of James Stewart—the May Silurians luncheon speaker. “He presented a resume, and the resume said he had been an intern at the local TV station in Quincy, Illinois, and, better, had been an intern at the local newspaper in Quincy, Illinois. So, that was a slam dunk. This guy’s got journalism experience.” Brill paused. “The resume left out the fact that his family owned the local newspaper and the local television station in Quincy Illinois. Just forgot to mention that. But it worked out.”
Then there was the founding of Court TV—product of “a three second” conversation in Steve Ross’s apartment and “two and a half hours with Jerry Levin.” As some indication of the speed and scope of his activities, he’s completely lost track of Court TV. (It’s now TruTV, a digital broadcast television network owned by Katz Broadcasting and simulcast on Sirius.)
Along the way, there were innumerable books, including his monumental work on Obamacare that grew out of a Time cover at 26,000 words—the longest the magazine has ever published. This has clearly given Brill standing to comment on the judicial dance over the abortion pill. “There isn’t a word of that [Texas federal court] decision that not only makes any sense, but that in any way is legally justifiable for a whole variety of reasons, the first of which is the people who sue don’t even have standing to sue. The second of which is Congress has given to the FDA the authority to make those kinds of scientific decisions—not one judge who was handpicked by the plaintiffs.”
Finally, there is Brill’s creation that has been and continues to be perhaps the most transformative of our profession. “NewsGuard is based on the notion that every once in a while human intelligence is better than the artificial kind,” Brill began. “It is a ridiculously inefficient exercise if you’re a tech person, but it’s a totally normal exercise if you’re a journalist. We read [every] website, we score them on the basis of nine criteria from 0 to 100.” This idea of grading websites is beginning to catch on. “A big part of our business is advertisers; another big part of our business are the platforms. This year, we broke into the black, which is pretty good for a start-up and it’s especially good for a startup that tries to do good as well as do well.” Truly, his mantra.
Brill believes that with AI (Artificial Intelligence) the need will only multiply for a service that can distinguish between the good, the bad, and the ugly. Which is basically what Brill has been doing, it would seem, all his life. And certainly merits him the Peter Kihss Award.