The Truth at the Bottom of the Glass

Good journalism without alcohol is possible. Whether it produces equivalent or even better results remains questionable.

"Journalism wants to kill you, but it wants to keep you alive while you're at it." - Horace Greeley

Ever since New York-based premium cable and satellite television network Home Box Office, commonly known as HBO, made its debut in the early 1970s, a lot of water has gone down the Hudson. Today, the HBO brand is synonymous with high-quality television shows. 

Thanks to technological progress, HBO has now become a mainstay in European living rooms as well. From Oslo to Athens, viewers subscribing to its streaming service can now enjoy the latest episodes of cult shows like "Game of Thrones", "Westworld", or "True Detective" at the same time (literally) as people in America. 

These shows are just the latest in a long line of epic HBO-produced TV narratives, some of which are already considered classics of modern entertainment: "The Sopranos", "Sex and the City", "Six Feet Under", to name but a few, or David Simon's "The Wire," probably the best television show ever written. It was these shows that made HBO the powerhouse with a global reach it is today.

A lesser known fact, at least outside the US, is that the company has been attracting attention in another genre as well on a regular basis, and for decades: opulent, innovative and sometimes provocative in-depth documentaries, some of which get under your skin the same way as watching the Army of the Dead marching South.

Among those documentaries, some of the very best are often the ones in which HBO goes back to look at the time when it started out. The company's origins lie in the run-down, destitute Manhattan of the 1960s and -1970s, a period that nowadays is hard to (re-) imagine, now that the city of New York has been on a seemingly never-ending downward spiral for the past 25 years, which has seen it turn into a boring, sterile playground for the uber-wealthy. 

Whether the focus of these documentaries is on sports (as in "City Dump"), on the socio-economic realities of the poor and working poor (as in "Class Divide"), or on documenting history (as in "In Memoriam: New York City 9/11/01"), almost every time HBO decides to tell a story about its hometown, it usually turns out not only wildly entertaining but truly educational. The last masterpiece produced in this tradition aired for the first time in November 2018. "Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists" covers the lives of the two characters giving the documentary its name.

If the title "Journalists of the Century" existed, Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill would indeed be among the first contenders. Between the 1950s, when they both started out, and the dawn of the new millennium, nobody put their stamp on New York City newspaper journalism the way these two did. Breslin and Hamill were writing for the then-great New York tabloids, the "Post" and the "Daily News." Sometimes their paths would cross, but most of the time each one sat alone behind some smoky newsroom desk and hammered out his column, which usually left the mayor (often), the police (more often) and the rich and powerful of Gotham (always) trembling.

Both Breslin and Hamill came from poor families and had little to no formal education, but what made them so great at their job was that they had their ears on the pulse of the streets. Quite literally: They did not find the material for their columns on some internet message board, but always in person; sometimes in luxury restaurants and cigar clubs, but usually in the bars, budget hotels, bodegas, flophouses and brothels of the big city.

In short, places where people live and work, who politicians usually don’t care about at all (because they mostly don't vote), and who the economy only cares about at certain times (when cheap labor is needed), while the uniformed authorities tend to care about them too much (because their occasional missteps provide them with a reason to keep their jobs).

Like none before or after them, Breslin and Hamill knew that in order to get stories that are truly worth writing down, one had to be able to dispense and to hold one’s liquor. And, as "Deadline Artists" shows, dispense and hold their liquor they did, over the course of nearly five decades.

Alcohol and Journalism: It is probably not an exaggeration to state that in the 20th century, this combination – not only in New York City, but throughout the world – might be responsible for a considerable number of stories that proved to be vital for making human beings truly understand and relate to each other.

The equation is simple: drinking brings people together and, for better or worse, the more they drink, the tighter and more intimate they become. As a result, beer, wine and liquor have proven for millennia to be the best and most reliable tools to get to the bottom of the innermost corners of the human soul. What one finds there is at best tender, gentle and loving; at worst nasty, shocking and terrifying. In any case, it is always interesting, and therefore indispensable for anyone and everyone who claims to want to be among those who’ve made it their life's mission to get as close to the truth of the times and the people as possible.

Accordingly, it is not a coincidence that from Hitler to Mullah Omar to Donald Trump, all notable dictators as well as modern wanna-be autocrats were and are teetotallers.

But to prove this thesis one doesn't even need to go as far as referring to the worst inbreds homo sapiens has brought forth in the course of history. A sobering look at the global and local elites of the 21st century and their journalistic stooges in print, online, radio and television is all that's needed.

Whether it's CEOs, politicians, real estate tycoons, stock brokers, hedge fund, wealth and asset managers, no matter where they're from and where in the world they live: once in a while they might allow themselves a glass of wine, maybe even two, but usually only when they know they’re among their peers; and even in that company they'll never let themselves go too much, because they're just too well aware that the facade of the "strong man" would then disappear as quickly as the ISIS caliphate, yet another failed state led by yet another army of teetotallers.

To be even more precise: in our time, in our sacred neoliberal economic order, in which every hillbilly billionaire is king of his own media empire, there seems to be no more room for the likes of a Breslin or a Hamill. The people appearing in the publications of these self-proclaimed saviors of the free word – their free word, not anyone else's of course – are all and always fit and beautiful and successful (and politically usually so far-right and anti-semitic that for every can of bull-piss they endorse, somewhere a Jew dies).

But speaking as a member of what most likely was the last generation of journalists that consisted mostly of college dropouts (if they had the privilege of any form of higher education at all): Is it really fair to judge today's young colleagues, who have been beaten into submission by the socio-economic powers-that-be and forced to subjugate themselves at least to a certain point simply because of a lack of alternatives? Does this new breed of so-called "academically trained" journalists inevitably do a worse job than we did, because they usually leave it at one beer after a day at the office, if they even have one? I have no idea.

What I do know though is that the term "academically trained journalist" is a contradiction per se, and should not be allowed to be used by operators of any journalism school anywhere in the world, except for those founded in Germany following the end of the Nazi regime, which had the specific aim of spreading the idea of liberal democracy by rebuilding the media.

The only thing this author can tell from what amounts to a quarter-century of professional experience as a freelance journalist, editor, publisher, and as a foreign correspondent, is that he would've never found a good number of what subjectively and objectively are valuable stories in lecture halls, had he not consumed an unholy amount of alcohol. 

In his modest experience, the clouded brain is generally much more likely to give birth to those kinds of truths which would have remained hidden forever in a sober state. Accordingly, the real truth of the matter, figuratively speaking, probably does not lie somewhere in between: Today, as yesterday, one surely does not need to be a drinker to practice good journalism. But if you take your job seriously, it surely has never hurt.