In Page One Documentary, the Grey Lady Receives a Timely Makeover
If you’re a newspaper journalist who enjoys masochistically gorging on the “newspapers are dead, take me to the content farm” meme, then Page One, a documentary about The New York Times showing at the Irish Film Institute, is the movie for you. Or at least it was for me. I came away from it duly convinced by the democratic importance and sweeping professionalism of The New York Times, as I think is the intention. As a tribute I’ve replicated in this post’s title the newspaper’s unique stylistic fondness for starting a headline with a prepositional phrase.
It’s not that I didn’t absorb the very real sense of insecurity and self-doubt that’s clearly got a guest pass for the New York Times Building. As advertising plummets and the culture of free triumphs, the editorial axe swings. A veteran section editor decides to take voluntary redundancy rather than try to “push my luck for another five years”. The deputy obituaries editor departs in the knowledge that her job title is on the endangered species list. Colleagues clap and cry.
But much of Page One seemed designed to “move the story on” from the paper’s recent woes. So, as a corrective to the scandalous saga of Judith Miller’s uncritically WMD-tastic, administration-cheerleading war reports, there’s a segment where a series of editors forensically rubbish an NBC news broadcast proclaiming the US military’s exit from Iraq, deriding it as fake narrative closure by the network.
What of the diluted authority of “analogue newspapers” in a digital world? One of the talking heads notes that in the YouTube age, someone like Wikileaks founder Julian Assange doesn’t need The New York Times the same way that Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Vietnam war-era Pentagon Papers, needed The New York Times. Ultimately, however, it’s decided that the Wikileaks documents gained credibility by virtue of its “vetting” and publication by established journalistic brands.
The threat posed to public interest journalism by parasitic aggregators like Michael Wolff’s Newser and ethically-alternative media magnates like Sam Zell are cited, though both are effectively and amusingly taken down in one way or another by the film’s blunt hero, David Carr, a former cocaine addict turned media columnist. (If you’ve seen the film, you can read Carr’s page-one story on the “bankrupt culture” of Sam Zell’s Tribune Company here.) Carr has a short fuse – “I don’t do corporate portraiture,” he tells a multimedia company making a pitch about how great they are.
But the line that had me wide-eyed was where he informs his editor that he is going to take “another” two weeks to research the Tribune article, followed by a further week to write the piece, and only then would he have something to show him. Three weeks plus added time is an ice age in the average byline-hungry, resource-starved newspaper. Any minute now, I thought, this being the US media, they’re going to start talking about the mysterious creatures known as “fact checkers”. Or maybe someone is going to be shown hot-footing it down to a crime scene in order to conduct a parallel investigation that eventually trumps the inferior police one. Such is the way with journalism in the movies, even when they’re fretting about the end times. The New York Times may be committing fewer resources to journalism than it once was, but its investment is still way ahead of most of the rest.
Amazingly, however, even when someone comes along and makes a documentary as flattering as this one, the newspaper is still old-school enough to be wilfully non-commercial about it. Apparently mindful of potential “conflicts”, the paper hired somebody outside the company to review it on its movie pages. Sadly, the reviewer slammed the documentary as “a mess”, telling the loyal New York Times‘ readership to go see His Girl Friday again instead. Oh well.