There has long been a tension in perceptions about news media – namely, about the line between journalistic reporting of the news and the penchant for possibly helping create the news. From William Randolph Heart’s infamous boasts that if a photographer supplied the pictures, he’d supply the war to the jaded journalists of Billy Wilder’s grimly sardonic Ace in the Hole, we see the fermentation of the so-called “media circus” which often seems to not only report, but actually push, the development of what we so prosaically call “the news.” Modern tales of journalistic plagarism and fabrication, including Jayson Blair’s involvement with the New York Times , have likewise pulled back the facade on our “fourth estate,” offering whiffs of personal corruption and creating the idea that “journalistic ethics” are often an elusive mirage.
In Wilder’s film (one of the more often underappreciated films in a lengthy career that includes classics such as Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, Some Like it Hot, and The Apartment), a down-on-his luck reporter working for a small New Mexico newspaper manages to get a major scoop in the form of a man trapped in a mine. The reporter essentially takes over the rescue effort, in the process prolonging it in order to continue feeding stories to the national press and thereby making a “name” for himself. For the reporter, the man’s life is essentially inconsequential; what becomes important is the story, and what it can offer him.
Margaret Truman’s latest “Capital Crimes” novel tracks a similar tale in a contemporary setting. Joe Wilcox is a reporter for the fictional Washington Tribune. His career is stalled and he’s going nowhere fast. After two young women, one of whom worked for the Tribune, are brutally murdered, Wilcox decides to take advantage of emerging speculation that a serial killer might be involved. He hopes to rescusitate his career on the basis of a story he himself has a hand in creating.
As the Tribune’s journalists try to solve the case before the police, the two groups quickly evolve into distrustful, suspicious camps. For the police, they see no reason to allow byline-hungry reporters to get in the way of their investigation; the reporters, of course, regard the police as obstructionist. Wilcox steps into the midst of this situation; spearheading the Tribune’s investigation, he tries to use his own brother, recently released from a mental institution for killing a young woman, as the basis for a fictional serial killer. But when a reporter starts to manufacture the news, how long before it becomes difficult to differentiate fact from fiction?
Wilcox finds himself risking is career, his marriage, and even the life of his own daughter, a beautiful rising star in TV news, in his personal bid for vindication and journalistic glory. And much like Wilder’s cinematic protagonist, a great many people may be hurt by Wilcox’s bid to have the story serve his interests, rather than simply report upon what exists.
While some of the novel’s plot twists are not the most believable, Truman offers a good portrait of a middle-aged man trying to recapture his former glory. Wilcox struggles to grasp at that which is just beyond reach, and in the process finds his life spiraling rapidly out of his control. Ultimately, the story here is not in the murder mystery itself, as the novel is something of a mirror image of Ace in the Hole – a cautionary tale in which the news is that reporters often discard notions of journalistic integrity in the pursuit of personal glory and ambition. In that regard, at least, it rings true.
Author’s Note: This article was originally posted at Wallo World.