In journalistic circles, the name Brill has come to be associated with comebacks—but it’s also one that Tina Brown’s The Daily Beast probably wishes would just go away.
This past week, a red-faced Beast added an unusually large number of notes and corrections to an article it published back in July. The author was freelancer Emily Brill, the daughter of Steven Brill, the journalism watchdog/entrepreneur with a fierce reputation as a boss.
Emily’s 2,000-word article, titled Harvard vs. Steve Jobs, focused on Harvard University and its financial disclosure practices. It all started last year, when Brill tried to get a job at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society but was turned down.
Emily had buddied up to Jonathan Zittrain, a law professor and co-founder of Berkman, and went on to audit his class. In the process, she became curious about the center’s funding sources.
But as she started reporting on Zittrain, the friendship quickly went awry. In the midst of this, Zittrain was battling serious health problems and declined to comment; he went on to have surgery to have more than half of his liver removed. Emily wrote one of her last e-mails to a recovering Zittrain in June: “I know these questions seem difficult, but if we could’ve discussed them as part of a normal conversation, the way reporters usually do, I wouldn’t have had to pose them like this.”
Harvard’s response to the article was brutal. Robb London, spokesman for Harvard Law School, fired off a memo to The Daily Beast requesting 11 corrections, including suggestions that Berkman doesn’t disclose its funding (it does disclose it, but on its Web site). Emily Brill’s reporting was so compromised, it said, the Beast should consider retracting it. At that point, Harvard said it also was cutting off communication with Brill, citing her “unprofessional tactics” and “conflict of interest.” (The Daily Beast said it accepted Brill’s article knowing about her failed job application, which also is mentioned in her article.)
When Harvard learned Brill was planning to publish a related piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, it went on the offensive, firing off a memo explaining why it wouldn’t cooperate with Brill. Among the 58 pages worth of documents Harvard dumped on CJR was Emily’s application for the Berkman job, a writing position.
One particularly colorful memo was a 550-word e-mail in which Brill acknowledged earlier typos she had made that read: “I take responsibility for my typos. I am the writer and publisher of my e-mails. The Internet, by the way, is not the writer, or the publisher. I am the decider.” The e-mail digressed into a lengthy declaration on online ethics in cyberspace: “To be clear, I think Facebook should be required to make a good faith effort to inform me if/before it intends to use my picture(s) on a billboard in Dubai, and especially if it plans to caption my picture(s), ‘Will Turn Tricks for Blow.’ I think that’s reasonable, but who knows? I use Facebook for free. I’m an adult. A freeloader. My IQ is above room temperature. What are my rights?”
The Daily Beast had made a few corrections to the story. But they were minor, and Harvard was demanding more—at which point the site went through a painstaking fact-checking process, one that was unusually contentious. On Oct. 12, The Daily Beast (the same day Mediaweek began inquiring about the story) added several more notes and corrections to the story, without changing the main premise of the piece. “Ultimately, we published precisely what we, at The Daily Beast, believed to be appropriate,” said Andrew Kirk, the site’s PR man.
As for Steven Brill, he is staying out of the fray publicly. “I never comment on stuff about my family,” he said in an e-mail, adding, “From what I know it was all handled responsibly and professionally by the Beast as well as Emily.” If Emily Brill was unhappy about the outcome, she denied it. “There were no fights,” she said, a note of relief in her voice. “We carefully reviewed all the complaints. We agreed: changes should be made.” But London hinted that there was more to the story: “If Emily Brill or her father decides you’re not their friend, you’re going to have a conflict.”
Brill’s related article is still set to come out in the CJR.