THIS COLUMN ORIGINALLY RAN ON COMICS BULLETINSometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2011's Page One: Inside the New York Times by Andrew Rossi and Kate Novack.
Are we, as this documentary posits, at a "dangerous moment in American journalism"? What are the repercussions of newspapers around the country succumbing to the financial realities of the moment and either slashing their budgets to the bone or shuting down all together? What is the result of 24 hour news cycles? What effect does the free-for-all of internet “reporting” have on the nation's understanding of the truth?
Sacks: Lately I've been hooked on watching old episodes of the classic TV series Lou Grant on Hulu. I've really enjoyed watching the show for a few reasons – there's some fine acting and some even better scriptwriting on the show. But more than anything I enjoy watching this show because it represents a lost era – a certain sort of bygone era when newspapers were the "voice of the community", advocating for the public good while also generating amazing profits. The character of matriarch Mrs. Pynchon on that show represented all that was supposed to be good about journalism – independence, insight, and the challenging of authority.
Of course those days are long past, if they ever really did exist. Newspapers are hanging on by the skin of their teeth these days, but is the decline of "the fifth estate" a real threat to our democracy?
Elkin: Page One: Inside the New York Times raises these questions. Unfortunately, I don't think it does a very good job of answering them.
This documentary is a story about both the power and limitations of news, specifically The New York Times as provider of news. Over a period of 14 months, the filmmakers were granted behind the scenes access to the inner workings of the Times. Rossi and Novack ended up building their narrative on the media desk at the Times, specifically focusing on media editor Bruce Headlam, and writers Tim Arango, Brian Stelter, and David Carr. The lion's share of the movie, though, really belongs to Carr, and this, I believe, is ultimately to the film's detriment.
Carr is an old school guy. He's got the romanticized grizzled background as a former violent drug addict with a “take-no-shit” attitude that seems to enchant the filmmakers to the point where much of what Carr says in the film, and he says a lot, goes unchallenged and is presented with a Moses-on-high sort of reverence.
Sacks: Carr is an interesting man, and I really enjoyed watching him in this movie. He's outspoken and speaks with a zealot's love for the Times. Unfortunately in Carr I saw both the greatness of the Times and some elements of its weakness.
Carr is clearly an outstanding reporter with an excellent eye for the telling detail. We watch him investigate the story of the bankruptcy of the Tribune Company with a dogged perseverance that shows the unique power that the Times has to set the public agenda and inform the national dialogue. The film makes the subtle hint that without the presence of the Times this story would not have been reported with the same attention that Carr brings it. But it never looks into how the non-traditional media covered this story or whether their reporting was more insightful. We never get a feel for how the Times approached the story using its own exacting journalistic standards.
However, the film also displays the other side of Carr, a side that Rossi and Novack seem to want viewers to embrace but which I found myself repelled by: his breathtaking arrogance. We follow Carr as he takes a visit to the Dark Side, the offices of the internet-based Vice magazine. From the moment he walks into the New Media company's office, Carr seems to be sneering down his nose about his younger competitors. When one of Vice's chief writers points with great pride at his site's coverage of the turmoil in Liberia and insults the Times, Carr erupts in his best "you kids get off my lawn" voice at the editor for daring to insult the Gray Lady. Carr is honestly, legitimately angry that a usurper would dare to insult his paper, but he's also completely blind to the fact that the public wants news from this kind of new media enterprise. It's easy to imagine Vice's editors rolling their eyes at the blind declarations of the old man in their midst and then continuing down their very successful road.
Elkin: Not to say that Carr doesn't make some good points in the film, and it is these points that should be the focus of further discussion. What is the value of the newspaper model of news delivery to our democracy? Is it preferential to other models and, if so, why is that? What are the dangers inherent in the loss of this model? What are the dangers of other models taking precedence?
Sacks: That's an important discussion, but that is where this documentary seems to really fall short for me. I wanted desperately to gain some insight into the Times and its place in the new world of Newsmax, Huffington Post, Vice and Google News. But instead I mostly felt like I received a lesson on why the Times in particular is so important for our world. And for me, the movie never makes a completely compelling case for that.
There's a very telling moment when the Times's editors watch NBC covering the US withdrawal from Iraq, wondering about the importance of the Times being excluded from the coverage. There's a real feeling of time passing the Times by in that moment, of how the dead tree media has lost its importance in an era when the 24/7 news cycle drives everything. The editors seem legitimately confused about what their reactions should be. But they shouldn't be.
The problems of the Times is the same as many other media in the Internet age. We saw it first with the music companies, but the impact of the web may have hit newspapers worse than any other business sector. They set the seeds of their own doom and seem unwilling to make the dramatic changes required by modern times. As the movie says, a paywall won't do much good to help the Times survive, so what will it take for the company to turn the corner? And is that something that anyone that will be missed by anyone too young to have watched Lou Grant when it was first airing on TV?
Elkin: What do we lose as a nation if the New York Times were to disappear? Certainly over the years of its existence, the Times has built up a pretty well-deserved reputation for objectivity and a doggedness in unearthing the machinations behind the events of the world. Aside from some rather spectacular stumbles (most notably the Jayson Blair scandal and Judith Miller's reporting on Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction), the Times is the paper that people trust with their news. The film points out rightly that much of the “reportage” that is found in the blogosphere and on the 24-hour news shows is commentary on pieces that originally come from the Times. What is written in the Times sets a precedent for how some stories are framed. In a world without the Times, we lose some of that structural integrity.
Another aspect that the filmmakers try to make in Page One is with the loss of the Times, our democracy would lose an important check on the power of government and corporations, as there would be nobody there holding them to task in the same manner as the Times does. On this topic, the film focuses for a moment on the reality of Julian Assange's WikiLeaks as new form of journalism. Instead of trying to grapple with the implications of this, Page One provides David Carr and Bruce Headlam a 20 foot tall soapbox from which to preach about how an information dump such as WikiLeaks is not useful until an organization like the Times has gone through the process of vetting the material and then reformatting it in a manner that tells the story that they think is the most newsworthy.
Sacks: There's such a double-edged sword to the trust that this movie wants us to put into the Times. The movie just kind of brushes aside the issue of the extreme loss of faith that the Blair and Miller affairs represent for smart readers. The approaches of those writes inform our opinions of the approaches of other writers. We have to wonder what sorts of items were ignored when the Times filtered the WikiLeaks story, because they didn't fit the agenda of the Times or simply didn't have sufficient space to be run in the article.
Why is it the job of the Times today to filter the news in the way it did 30 or 40 years ago? And, given the loss of faith from the Blair affair and given the way that the Times seems out of step with the way we consume news in 2012, is there a reason we should trust the Times over another news outlet? I wanted to see this movie address these topics more directly, but as you say, we really get everything shown us from the standpoint of Carr and Headlam.
Elkin: Once again, this smacks of self-importance and is demeaning. It is this attitude that undermines so much of what Page One is trying to say, and is why this film fails.
Just for the record, I am in no way advocating for the demise of the New York Times. I am in complete agreement that there is an important role the Times plays in our democracy as a news gathering and news disseminating medium. I firmly believe that the loss of the paper would be a tragedy for our country and it would create a “truth-vacuum” that I don't really see anyone else being able to fill. What I am disappointed with is Page One's inability to make this case in a meaningful way to an audience that is increasingly relying on new forms of media to get its news, which is why the paper is struggling in the first place.
Sacks: I couldn't agree with you more, Daniel. I think the Times is an important part of our democracy and fulfills an important role in our society. But I wish this movie had explored the interesting topics it raises in more detail. Most importantly, there's little or nothing in this movie that talks about the place of the Times in the New Media environment of 2012. We get a little bit of coverage of the Times paywall implementation, but there's not a lot of insight gleaned from the small anecdotes the movie shows on that topic. In these days of Vice and Yahoo News and Politico and Gawker and dozens of other sites that cover the same ground as the Times, what is the place for the Gray Lady of News?
Elkin: I'm glad this documentary was made for the reason that it raises all of these questions, as these are important questions that deserve a lot of thought. I am disappointed that the film doesn't do enough to help answer any of them.