LUCE, MAY YOU LIE MORE PEACEFULLY IN YOUR GRAVE
In Oliver Stone's
1987 movie, "Wall Street," Michael Douglas gives a chilling
depiction as Gordon Gekko, a broker who manipulates the market to suit
Unfortunately, all too many MBAs and corporate executives didn't get
the joke. They took Gekko's rallying cry "Greed Is Good" as
a moral imperative.
We have all seen the results during the past month, as stockholders
have panicked, citing complete lack of confidence in major corporations
such as Exxon, WorldCom, Tyco, and even the venerable AOL/Time Warner.
The latter is particularly painful for those who have watched the greatest
media company in the world loose its bearings. Not only was Time Inc.,
for years, the leader in magazine journalism, but for those of us in
photojournalism it was a place to which we aspired.
There is an old story that is legend at Time, that through the
1950s, when Henry Luce, the creator of Time, Life and
Fortune, was still at the helm, every would-be staffer had a moment
of truth they had to go through. After a trial period, the young journalist
would be ushered into Luce's private office.
After sizing up the prospect, Luce would lean forward on his desk, and
ask one question: "What are you worth to me?" This was a trick
It was up to the poor subject to name his or her salary. Depending on
the answer, Luce would either let the person go, or double the figure.
The logic was that Luce wanted to make sure that the new person would
be so indebted to Time, thinking they could never get another job as
good, that they would give everything they were capable of to the company.
From that moment on, every asset of the mighty Time Inc. would be available.
Planes would be chartered, in one case a 707 turned into a flying photo
lab to process the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth for LIFE magazine,
and a bureau chief in the Time foreign service would be considered the
most important American in any country of the globe, outranking the
The whole point of all this was based on the assumption that by producing
superior reporting and photography, the magazines would become irresistable
to advertisers. The content was what sold the product. It produced a
publishing empire unmatched in the history of journalism.
Then along came the Gordon Gekkos. Luce was dead and buried. The new
executives hungrily looked at the huge amounts of cash flowing into
and out of the company, and decided they wanted it.
From that point on, the dismemberment began. Photojournalists who had
been regularly trotting around the world on assignment were brought
Photography that had previously been regarded as content suddenly became
a commodity. The basic question changed from "how much do we want
to spend on journalism?" to "how much can we make off journalism?"
The problem was that the publications were never conceived as markets.
They were created to be influencers of public opinion, deriving their
income from the "goodwill" with which they were considered
by readers and advertisers. So, suddenly this mighty speeding train
jumped the tracks.
Today, editors at these publications are under constant pressure. No
matter how hard they try to meet budget targets, even if successful,
they are ordered to do better the next quarter.
Interestingly enough, there is a vestige of the old formula that still
exists within the shell that is now AOL Time Warner. It is Home Box
According to a recent NY Times story "in the last four years no
institution across the range of the entertainment industry-in films,
television, movies or books-has been more talked about, written about,
imitated and emulated than HBO. Under CEO Jeff Bewkes and programming
chief Chris Albrecht, Luce's old formula has come back to life. After
being turned down by other networks, HBO gave a vote of confidence to
"The Sopranos." An unlikely series on a mafia family. According
to the Times, after making the pilot Abrecht commissioned research into
the show. "It was not particularly promising," Mr. Albrecht
said. "For all the reasons of social responsibility. Jeff and I
looked at each other and said: 'What do you think?' Jeff said 'Can all
the episodes be this good? ' I said I think they can. He said 'Let's
try it.'" Other hit series have followed that are sheer genius,
including "Sex In the City," "Six Feet Under," "Band
of Brothers" and "Oz."
HBO is now the first stop for any aspiring film-maker, just like the
old LIFE and TIME used to be for photojournalists. In fact, as more
photographers begin to make the move to documentary digital filmmaking,
HBO may truly make Henry Luce lie more peacefully in his grave.