Steven Brill is using human beings, not computers or algorithms, to connect people with trustworthy news, through his company NewsGuard.
“It is based on the ridiculous premise, ridiculous in much of Silicon Valley, that every once in a while, human intelligence is better than the artificial kind,” Brill told David Axelrod on “The Axe Files,” a podcast from The University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN.
The author of “Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall – and Those Fighting to Reverse It,” once worked alongside former New York City Mayor John Lindsay to create anticrime programs during his first year at Yale Law School. But he found himself more interested in journalism.
“I’d written two or three pieces that I just mailed in that made it onto the op-ed page of The New York Times … I liked the fact that I could control what I was doing and have an impact.”
He later went on to write for New York magazine with the help of his colleague Tom Morgan, Lindsay’s former press secretary. His piece on the black market for handguns was the first of many features he wrote for the magazine.
“I like to write about stuff that I don’t know anything about, because it’s curiosity that really compels me. And I teach a journalism seminar at Yale now, and that’s what I always say to people … the best stories are going to be stories where you’re really curious and you don’t really know the answer.”
Brill has continued to write about what makes him curious, like the Teamsters Labor Union and Trump University; the now-defunct school, according to Brill, is a “total metaphor for Trump.”
“He basically swindled the same people who became his base,” Brill said. Trump agreed to a $25 million settlement with former students shortly after the 2016 election. “In fact, there were two people in the class action suit for Trump University who (said) they are still going to vote for Trump, because while he cheated them, it was really smart what he did, and he’ll do the same for the country.”
Brill founded Court TV and the “American Lawyer” magazine, where he learned important lessons in the business of journalism. He told Axelrod that rule No. 1 is “you can never be satisfied.”
“If you don’t get better, someone else is going to get better than you … especially when you’re starting something new. You absolutely, positively have to get everybody involved sitting around the table as much as every day, contributing to the thing that you’re creating,” he said.
Brill prioritizes “good journalism” and “the ultimate integrity of the person in charge” over clicks or page views. This type of thinking informed NewsGuard, which, using a team of experienced journalists, rates news sources on nine different criteria. Trustworthy sources are labeled with a green icon, while unreliable sources are labeled with red.
NewsGuard hopes to label every website in the US that provides news and information online. The company is focusing on the 4,500 sites with content in English that account for the majority of engagement in the country. They’re currently at about 92% completion.
“Algorithms are not transparent. They don’t admit mistakes; you have no idea how they’re doing what they’re doing,” Brill said. “With NewsGuard, anyone who sees (our rating) gets a complete window onto our process, even the biographies of the people who wrote the ratings.”
NewsGuard’s transparency, according to Brill, could help make an unreliable news source much better.
“We want everybody to game our system. We want someone to say, ‘Gee, if I had a corrections policy, I could get more points from NewsGuard.’ Hallelujah. That’s why we started the company.”