Source:  ProPublica Interview with Steve Brill

Steve Brill, a supporter of serious investigative, responsible journalism, was the founder of CourtTV in 1989 and left in 1997, afterwards, the channel degenerated over several years into a non-analytical tabloid shadow of its former self (TruTV, the sister channel to HLN).

Question: …But so often, particularly when you were getting started with American Lawyer, you were hiring young people who didn’t have much of a track record. What’s your process? Is it intuitive? Do you just have a nose…?

Brill: I think it’s a lot intuitive, but there are a lot of mistakes. After all, I deserve to do community service. I am the person who brought Nancy Grace to television…

(Excerpts of interview below)

…Brill: Listen. I think, somehow, some way…this is going to be a really unsatisfactory answer. I continue to believe that somehow, some way, that people who supply important, valuable information are going to get paid for it. We may be seeing the start of that. Our company, we’re sending big dollar checks to Billings, Montana, which has put a meter on their website, just the way the Times has. Will it be the profit margins that you saw when every newspaper in every town had a monopoly and the Oldsmobile dealer had to advertise in the newspaper? Well, no. Not the least of which is because there’s no longer an Oldsmobile dealer.  I think doing good journalism can pay. Time Magazine, a weekly news magazine, has a special problem, which is their original role, which was to summarize the news and to tell you…If the president had dinner with 12 Republican senators at the Jefferson Hotel, the traditional role of Time Magazine would be to tell you what they had for dinner and what they talked about because the Times and the Washington Post would have the news story the next day that they met and then the background story would be in the weekly newspaper.  Now the Times and the Washington Post are going to have the story of what they had for dinner and who said what to whom and what happened because everything else is the news story that they had dinner. If you got up this morning and picked up the newspaper to find out that they were having dinner, you were way behind. You could have known that at 8:00 last night…

Tofel: Steve, let’s take two other cases. We learned this week that two of the nation’s largest magazine companies don’t want to own Fortune Magazine, which is a terrific magazine and writes about stuff that is important to a lot of people. The Boston Globe is for sale and there’s every reason to think that the enterprise value of the Boston Globe is, net of its pension obligations, less than zero and it will be sold for less than zero.  If the nation’s great magazine companies don’t want to own Fortune and the leading newspaper in one of America’s most important cities is worth less than nothing, doesn’t that give you some pause?

Brill: Sure, it gives me a ton of pause…

Steiger: You’re one of the greatest recruiters of journalists ever.

Brill: Well, actually, Norm Pearlstine was. He just hired everyone whoever worked for me.

Steiger: Right. [laughter] I’ve hired people who have worked for you also, and it’s a good rule. But so often, particularly when you were getting started with American Lawyer, you were hiring young people who didn’t have much of a track record. What’s your process? Is it intuitive? Do you just have a nose…?

Brill: I think it’s a lot intuitive, but there are a lot of mistakes. After all, I deserve to do community service. I am the person who brought Nancy Grace to television. [laughter]

So let’s take this all with a grain of salt. I have a higher batting average than I might deserve. There’s a lot of luck involved, but I remember when, early on, I had recruited Jim Stewart because he was working an antitrust case with my wife. He said that he had always wanted to be a journalist. He had a résumé that said he had been an intern at the local television station and an intern at the local newspaper.  I figured, “Well, what could be better than that?” Five years later, I found out that his parents owned the local television station and the local newspaper. Who knew?  But anyway, at the same time I hired Jim I hired another guy from a Wall Street firm. Six months later, we set out to do, for the first time, our 10 best and 10 worst judges across all of the federal circuits.

It worked out but the guy I hired with Jim, same great résumé, Harvard Law School, same thing. On Wednesday he hands in his pick in the circuit covering Virginia. Is that the fifth or the fourth? He hands in his pick for the worst judge and I start asking questions about it. “What about this? What about this? You didn’t prove this? You didn’t prove that?”

It’s Wednesday. He comes back Monday and had named the guy the best judge.  [laughter]

This was not going to work. There are a lot of judges. The guy couldn’t have swung that far. But I also believe that you can train people to do the hard work. We were a good training ground. By the way, I used the Journal to recruit because after you guys started hiring a few people, I didn’t have the attitude of what’s his name, that horrible guy that used to own The Observer. I’m blanking on his name. You know who I mean.  [crosstalk]

Brill: Anyway, his attitude…you know, Arthur Carter. His attitude was if you left The Observer…and, by the way, who wouldn’t leave The Observer? [laughter]  You don’t pay anybody there. Of course you are going to leave the Observer. You don’t say, “My idea is to support my children and grandchildren from my Observer salary.” His attitude is the day you said you were leaving you were dirt. You were disloyal. My attitude was obviously the place to start a journalism career was a place like The American Lawyer. That was my same attitude with Court TV. You give people an opportunity, and if they get hired away, you use that to hire other people. “Work here for a few years, and if you want to you can go there.”

When we started Court TV we had a couple of experienced people, and there was a producer there, a young producer, Cynthia McFadden. She came in one day and she said, “We don’t have enough on air people. You just don’t know how to count. You don’t know what you are doing. We don’t have enough on air people. It’s supposed to be an all day television network. People can’t be on all day. We need more anchors.”  I said, “Well, what about you?” She said, “What?” I said, “You look OK and you certainly talk a lot. Why don’t you try it?”

So Fred Graham, who was our experienced guy, takes me aside…oh, and then I did the same thing with Terry Moran, ironically, because they now both do Nightline.

Fred takes me aside and says, “Steve, you really can’t put people on television who don’t have television experience.” I said, “Fred, by that definition no one could ever be on television.”

[laughter]

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Comments
  1. R. says:

    You did us all an enormous disservice hiring Nancy Grace. She’s a disgrace to television and has made HLN a JOKE. She is scum. But she has “fooled” the dummies out there, boosted ratings with her lies, etc., and so they will never get rid of her. Sorry, but no other word describes her as well.

    Like

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