“The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” - Thomas Jefferson. “Myth is much more important and true than history. History is just journalism and you know how reliable that is.” - Joseph Campbell.
“The press is a gang of cruel faggots. Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for f**koffs and misfits—a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy p**s-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.”
Ace in the Hole (1951) may be one of the darkest films ever made. Directed by the American Billy Wilder, it is also perhaps his best film – and Wilder made some true classics, including Some Like It Hot – regularly voted one of the best comedies ever made – and The Apartment, which won three Oscars, including that for Best Director. But Ace in the Hole is the Billy Wilder film that this correspondent rates the highest.
The protagonist – we cannot call him a hero, for reasons which become obvious more or less from the start – is newspaperman Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), who can best be described as loathsome human flotsam. Think Piers Morgan. Then again, best not to.
Tatum stumbles on the archetypal human interest story that might just turn his flagging career around. A miner with a respiratory condition, Leo Minosa, prospecting for Indian treasure in New Mexico, is trapped by a rockfall in an isolated cave, and time is tight to rescue him before he expires. Tatum discovers Minosa, quickly realises the dramatic potential of the story, and then single-handedly takes control of the rescue effort.
There is not one single likeable character in the entire film. All of humanity’s worst traits are shoved in front of the spotlight. In one scene Tatum slaps Minosa’s wife, to which she responds, “Don’t do that again, I might get to like it.” In another, Tatum suggests that she pray for her ailing husband. “I don’t go to church,” she sourly responds; “Kneeling bags my nylons.” At the end of the film, you feel like you need to take a hot shower.
Wilder even wanted to remake the famous Paramount studio logo: at the start of the film, that famous arc of stars would rise, not over a mountaintop, but above a rattlesnake poised in the desert sand. The British movie critic David Thompson writes,
The studio killed the idea, but the snake’s poison runs all through this deeply misanthropic film.
At one stage in his life, this correspondent was keenly interested in working as a full time journalist. His first encounter with Fleet Street rapidly dissuaded him. Turning up as a fresh-faced intern at the offices of The Daily Express in the late 1980s, this correspondent was given the following welcome:
Who do you know that’s famous ? Go off and get an interview.
Which didn’t exactly chime with our preconceptions about what quality journalism was all about. (It was admittedly The Daily Express. What were we thinking ?)
From the vantage point of 2021, of course, everything has changed in the world of media. The Internet and social media have blasted through traditional media like a whirlwind, leaving chaos in their wake. Chaos, along with much depleted earnings for those news organisations that still survive.
But perhaps they shouldn’t survive.
Our first doubts started to creep in during the campaigning for Brexit. Anybody expecting sustaining coverage of the most important political development in Britain for a generation will have left the table hungry.
Whichever way you voted, the chances are you will have been uncomfortable with the British media’s reporting of Brexit.
Most of ‘the Establishment’, including the incumbent government, the BBC, the CBI, the TUC, the Bank of England, all of the major City banks, and even the US President, were fiercely pro-Remain. As, it turns out, were those publications you might otherwise expect to support free market capitalism, The Financial Times and The Economist.
Turns out those publications weren’t exactly non-partisan. Lionel Barber, editor of the FT, boasted on Twitter that he had been granted the Légion d’honneur for services to the EU “high quality journalism,” and was praised at the award ceremony for his “impartiality and honesty”. He immediately deleted the Tweet, but the taint remained.
As a sign of the cognitive dissonance at the FT, consider this comment from Martin Wolf, the paper’s chief economics correspondent, in his March 2017 piece, ‘Brexiters must lose if Brexit is to succeed’:
Mrs May has no mandate for the threat she has made of turning the UK into a low-tax, minimum-regulation country.
You might expect the FT to have been in favour of lower taxes and lower regulations. You would be wrong.
Or let’s take the example of Trump. The BBC – another of our media bêtes noires – recently broadcast a fascinating fly-on-the-wall documentary about The New York Times, ‘Reporting Trump’s Year: The Fourth Estate’. It makes for dispiriting viewing for anyone who believes in the objectivity of the press.
The journalist Michael Lewis has written a damning piece about the US newspaper business which you can read here: the following extract is drawn from it:
“As you walk through the front door of the Columbia School of Journalism, the first thing you see is this paragraph, cast on a bronze plaque:
“OUR REPUBLIC AND ITS PRESS WILL RISE OR FALL TOGETHER. AN ABLE, DISINTERESTED, PUBLIC-SPIRITED PRESS, WITH TRAINED INTELLIGENCE TO KNOW THE RIGHT AND COURAGE TO DO IT CAN PRESERVE THAT PUBLIC VIRTUE WITHOUT WHICH POPULAR GOVERNMENT IS A SHAM AND A MOCKERY. A CYNICAL, MERCENARY, DEMAGOGIC PRESS WILL PRODUCE IN TIME A PEOPLE AS BASE AS ITSELF. THE POWER TO MOULD THE FUTURE OF THE REPUBLIC WILL BE IN THE HANDS OF THE JOURNALISTS OF FUTURE GENERATIONS.
“These four sentences are about as close to the intellectual origins of the American journalism school as you can get. They are taken from an article by Joseph Pulitzer in the May 1904 issue of the North American Review, the only serious defence he offered of his plan to fund the first journalism school at Columbia. He argued that his school would “raise journalism to the rank of a learned profession” and create a “class feeling among journalists.” He predicted—wrongly, as it turned out—that “before the century closes schools of journalism will be generally accepted as a feature of specialized higher education, like schools of law or of medicine,” and that the elites of Columbia would band together to cast out “the black sheep” from the profession.
“According to his biographer, W.A. Swanberg, the idea of a school of journalism first dawned on Pulitzer in 1892, while he was confined to a dark room, suffering from asthma, insomnia, exhaustion, diabetes, manic-depression and failing eyesight. By the time he actually composed his thoughts for the North American Review, his bed chart included rheumatism, dyspepsia, catarrh and a bad case of shame for the Spanish atrocities in Cuba deliberately invented by his reporters to goose the circulation of his newspapers. His wife, a few of his colleagues and the trustees of Harvard and Columbia, who initially declined the $2 million sack dangled before them, suspected that he was not quite in his right mind. A New York newspaper editor named Horace White suggested that one might as well set up a graduate school in swimming..
“..The first sentence on the bronze plaque that you see when you walk through the front door of the Columbia Journalism School may or may not be true, but it sets a fittingly autocratic, unreflective tone. The second sentence is ungrammatical. The last two sentences offer the sort of grandiose vision of journalism entertained mainly by retired journalists or those assigned to deliver speeches before handing out journalism awards. Highly flattering to all of us, of course, but it would be more true to flip the statement to read: “a cynical, mercenary, demagogic people will produce in time a press as base as itself …” There’s also a small problem: when the journalism school cemented the bronze plaque on the wall in 1962, to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary, it misquoted the text as it appeared in its final, pamphlet form. Those nits! The details! Flaubert! A word of Joseph Pulitzer’s is missing, between demagogic and press. The word is CORRUPT.”
At the start of this commentary we described Billy Wilder as an American director, but that isn’t strictly true. Wilder was actually born to a family of Austrian Jews in Poland in 1906. Fleeing the Nazis, he moved to Hollywood in 1933. His mother, grandmother and stepfather were all killed in the Holocaust. That may account for the undercurrent of darkness that skulks amongst almost all of his films.
We are living through a dark period in democracy, politics and economic history, comparable in our view to that of the 1930s (see Piers Brendon’s magisterial study of the 1930s, Dark Valley, for more on this theme), and the role of a free press is arguably more important than ever in attempting to hold political power and monied interests to account. A supposedly free press, however, has shown itself to be simply not up to the task. Many sectors will find themselves looking for relevance in the post-Covid world. Mainstream journalism will be one of them.
Tim Price is co-manager of the VT Price Value Portfolio and author of ‘Investing through the Looking Glass: a rational guide to irrational financial markets’. You can access a full archive of these weekly investment commentaries here. You can listen to our regular ‘State of the Markets’ podcasts, with Paul Rodriguez of ThinkTrading.com, here. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Price Value Partners manage investment portfolios for private clients. We also manage the VT Price Value Portfolio, an unconstrained global fund investing in Benjamin Graham-style value stocks and specialist managed funds.
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