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Printing All the News That's Fit

MOVIE REVIEW
Page One: Inside The New York Times (2011)

Page-one-inside-the-new-york-times-david-carr
Magnolia Pictures

In all the speculation over the probable death of newsprint, at least one aspect appears to have been overlooked: How will film and television cope if that great standby character, the investigative reporter, is forced into extinction? Who will have the dogged tenacity to hit the streets in order to uncover a trail of corruption that normally goes all the way to the top? Would "All the President's Men" have been so thrilling had Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein been able to sit back and wait for the latest tweet from Deep Throat or for video footage of the Watergate break-in to be posted on YouTube?

"Page One: Inside The New York Times" does not ask this question — at least not directly — but it still offers a pretty comprehensive debate on the rapid changes occurring in the world's media. Andrew Rossi and Kate Novack took a genuine fly-on-the-wall approach to their subject by pitching up inside the Times building and letting a variety of talking heads provide the commentary. These number not just employees of the Grey Lady, but also the likes of David Remnick from The New Yorker, Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia and even good old Mr. Bernstein himself.

In a brief history lesson, the venerability of the Times is established. For several years, the paper was so influential that the term "The New York Times effect" was coined, as whatever story the paper chose to lead with its competitors duly followed suit. Not that the reputation of the Times has always been so illustrious. Publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971 — which revealed uncomfortable truths about United States conduct in Vietnam — was a brave move. More recently and in direct contrast, the columnist Judith Miller's inaccurate opinions on the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was shameful. Just to add to the embarrassment, in the same year — 2003 — Times writer Jayson Blair was exposed as a plagiarist, a revelation which led to the downfall of the then executive editor, Howell Raines. By the time Bill Keller, his replacement, took over, the Times had lost its grip on the high ground.

But that was then. "Page One" hones in on the more recent and potentially terminal crisis facing the paper. With the unstoppable growth of the Internet, citizen journalism, news-aggregate sites and related avenues of expression, the Times, amongst others, is reaping the whirlwind. Advertising revenue saw a 30 percent drop while rival publications introduced major cutbacks and redundancies. During the filming of the documentary, new words such as Twitter and WikiLeaks became commonplace, their childish sound belying an ability to attract millions of followers.

When news becomes free, what happens to the guys who used to sell it to you? In this case, how will the Times be able to survive in this changing environment? By jealously guarding its online content behind a pay wall perhaps, or fraternizing with the enemy by cozying up to the dark lord himself, Julian Assange. During the period covered by the film, the Times adopted both of these tactics. We are left in no doubt that behind the headlines there are real jobs at stake. There is Bruce Headlam, the media and marketing editor, who has a poster of a svelte looking Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane on his wall as if to remind him of why he is there in the first place. Brian Stelter is a poacher-turned-gamekeeper, a blogger who used to comment on newspapers only to find himself hired by the Times.

If "Page One" has a star, then it is most certainly David Carr, who writes a weekly media column for the paper. Mr. Carr is a journalist of the old school, a Bukowski-like poet of the printing press who has led what he generously refers to as "a textured life." If Mr. Carr can be described as hard-bitten, then some of the wounds have been self-inflicted. Heavily addicted to cocaine in his 20s and 30s, a police bust brought Mr. Carr back to his senses and he landed a job at the Times in his early 50s. With his shriveled form and a throat that has seen so much punishment that he now speaks in a hoarse rasp, Mr. Carr is a real survivor. He has plenty to say about the new media revolution, all of it interesting; and he is not taking crap from anybody.

Watching Mr. Carr investigate the collapse of the Tribune Company, which had numbered the Los Angeles Times amongst its titles, is to witness the sort of first rate on-the-ground reporting that is at stake. The company was run into the ground by the mismanagement of Sam Zell and his equally dubious accomplices. When Mr. Carr unearths accusations of sexual harassment against the Tribune management by its ex-employees, this is no dirt digger at work but a man with a real passion and a moral compass who is incensed at how low his profession can fall. If there is one abiding sense that comes across in "Page One," exemplified by Mr. Carr, it is the depth of knowledge that creates great journalism. The staff of The New York Times possess an ability to analyze behavior and recognize government flimflam that might yet put it one step ahead of its digital rivals.

"Page One: Inside The New York Times" is not great cinema as it would be as at home on television as it is on the cinema screen, but it is a well-made and vital documentary. The film is a zeitgeist of our times, which might already be an historical document by the time this review ends. Though primarily of interest to media commentators and those inside journalism, what it talks about is of importance to everybody: How news is gathered, processed, editorialized and presented to the waiting world now and in the future will have a profound effect on us all. You only have to look at the recent hacking scandal within News International to be reminded that whoever controls the flow of information holds a powerful weapon in his or her hands.

PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES

Opens on Sept. 23 in Britain.

Directed by Andrew Rossi; written by Kate Novack and Mr. Rossi; director of photography, Mr. Rossi; edited by Chad Beck, Christopher Branca and Sarah Devorkin; music by Paul Brill; produced by Ms. Novack, Mr. Rossi, Josh Braun, David Hand, Alan Oxman and Adam Schlesinger; released by Dogwoof. Running time: 1 hour 28 minutes. This film is rated 15.

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