All the news that fits on film
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, July 1, 2011
The title "Page One: Inside the New York Times” is kind of misleading. For starters, its evocation of print’s golden age, embodied by the play and movie “The Front Page,” makes the documentary sound like little more than a love song to a dying but not yet buried giant of the news biz. You almost expect it to open with shots of massive rolls of newsprint and conveyor belts serving up thousands of still-warm copies of that day’s paper.
And it does. But faster than you can say, “Sweetheart, get me rewrite,” filmmaker Andrew Rossi cuts away from such nostalgia-inducing bunk to cold, hard reality: TV news reports about one newspaper after another going under, victims of the industry-wide recession. It’s a good thing, too. The movie is a clear-eyed and engrossing look at an important subject.
Now, about that subject. Although the film’s subtitle suggests that what we’re about to see is primarily a behind-the scenes-look at the inner workings of the Gray Lady, as the 160-year-old newspaper is known, “Page One” is much more. To be sure, there are some inside-baseball scenes showing the editorial finagling and finessing that go into producing a story. Most people never see these or, frankly, care about them. Still, the film is not structured around such backroom negotiations.
It’s built around David Carr, the Times’s media columnist since 2002 and, incidentally, the former editor of the Washington City Paper. To the extent that “Page One” has a narrator, it’s Carr. He also doubles as the film’s chief interview subject and tour guide. The movie is almost a profile of him as much as it is a portrait of his employer.
That’s nothing to complain about.
Carr makes for a fascinating if cranky host. He’s lively, opinionated, funny, personal and a bit old-fashioned. Carr quips that he still can’t get over the feeling that Brian Stelter, a much younger and Web-savvier colleague, was “a robot assembled in the basement of the New York Times to come and destroy me.” Stelter, a blogger turned newspaper reporter who brought his blogging, tweeting and social-media skills to the Times — as have many others — also makes frequent appearances.
It’s this broad vision of what constitutes journalism that makes “Page One” matter. Director Rossi is really interested in taking the biggest possible picture of the contemporary media landscape. That includes cable and broadcast TV, the Internet, the impact of corporate ownership on newspapers, the rise of news aggregation sites and tablet computing. Carr — and, by extension, Rossi — talks about it all, knowledgably, entertainingly, broadly and passionately.
What is their passion for? Not newspapers, or even a single newspaper, per se, but for journalism itself, the practice of which is nowhere stronger than at the Times. That, at least, is how “Page One” argues it.
It’s a compelling argument.
Working for a competing newspaper, I’ll admit to feeling a bit of schadenfreude when the film recounted such Times scandals as Jayson Blair’s plagiarism or Judith Miller’s weak reporting on the buildup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But I also felt a sharp pang when David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker and a former Washington Post correspondent, spoke of how budgetary cutbacks had left the Post, in his view, a “lesser” paper.
Whether he’s right or wrong about that, he’s dead-on about one thing: It would be a tragedy if the world were to lose the New York Times.
Contains obscenity and some violent, disturbing news footage.