Page One: Inside the New York Times

October 8, 2011
Film still, Page One, Inside the New York Times

Think of the New York Times and Tom Wolfe’s acqueous description in The Painted Word comes quickly to mind:

“that great public bath, that vat, that spa, that regional physiotherapy tank, that White Sulphur Springs, that Marienbad, that Ganges, that River Jordan for a million souls”.. a daily ritual immersion in news and commentary – enlightening, infuriating, addictive.

More than any other contemporary news organisation, the Times best fulfils Hegel’s quip that the newspaper is “the morning prayer of the modern man.” In the country most devoted to religious fanaticism, the United States of America, the Times is a source of devotion for hundreds of thousands of people who have been brought up to view this newspaper as the ultimate authority on most subjects. I only wish I could say that about their visual arts coverage.

To many of us who have spent our working lives in and around newspapers, the Times remains the benchmark of quality journalism. Regardless of the fact that it has suffered two major falls from grace in recent years, with Judith Miller’s inaccurate reports about Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the serial plagiarism of Jayson Blair, the Times still has a deserved reputation for accuracy of reporting. Moreover, it exercises a greater impact on public and politicians than any other American paper.

Andrew Rossi’s impressive dcumentary, Page One: Inside the New York Times, takes us into the engine room of a great newspaper during a time of radical upheaval in the media landscape. As long-established newspapers fall like mighty oaks under the onslaught of the internet and the loss of advertising revenue, the Times stands like the last battered behemoth in a forest of stumps.

Episodes such as the Miller and Blair affairs are examined in this film because as former staffer David Remnick says: “every time the Times fails on a serious scale with a particular story, there’s a cost, a price to pay.” The Times trades on its reputation. It prides itself on its efforts to be fair and objective when the whole movement of news today is towards info-tainment and opinion.

This film was made before the recent phone-tapping scandals that brought down the News of the World, but the issues it raises anticipate that debacle. The problem, quite simply, is that the quality and reliability of newspapers are being compromised by economic factors. As Paul Steiger, former editor of the Wall Street Journal says, there’s no way you can have a ‘business model’ for investigative reporting. When journalism has to concentrate on what pays, it tends to ignore the stories that really matter.

The end result of chasing the popular buck is the News of World, or the bankrupcty of the Tribune Company, which threw the American media industry into the doldrums. Some of the most breathtaking moments in this film are extracts from a speech by the grotesque Sam Zell, the businessman who took over Tribune and then took it down.

We watch the Times media reporter, the charismatic David Carr, piecing together the whole sordid tale of the Tribune company – a moral lesson of what happens when the urge for profit takes control of the media.

Carr is the chief protagonist of this film – a gaunt, ex-crack addict who has become a persuasive spokesman for the Times in an era when many question its relevance and  longevity. His sees the fate of the newspaper reflected in his own status as a survivor. “I’ve been a single parent on welfare,” he says. “This is nothing.”

Although every prediction about the future of the newspaper industry has so far proven to be inadequately pessimistic, this film holds out a glimmer of hope in the comparisons it invites between the Times and the blogosphere.

When news is tailored towards personal interest it inevitably mutates into a form of cheap entertainment, with endless stories about sex and celebrity. The blogs are mostly sites where news is reprinted or repackaged, not news-gathering organisations. Their sources of information are often no more reliable than an anonymous on-line tip. Remove the Times, and one removes a major source of content for the bloggers.

Throughout this documentary it feels as though a lurking shadow is ready to descend on traditional news organisations, as they are replaced by profit-driven websites dedicated to giving readers only what they want. The frightening thing is that politicians are startling to tailor their policies and pronouncements to the same audience exoectations – which makes the need for quality journalism ever more imperatve.

Bloggers, even super-bloggers like Julian Assange, usually have an activist agenda. The Times might say that its only agenda is to be fair and accurate. This necessarily means it may take a more cautious approach to a story than the average website. But there is a dfference between being fearless and being reckless.

If one considers journalism to be more than a business, but an activity that has an impact of “the public good”, it is impossible not to appreciate the ethical, hard-headed stance of many of the reporters featured in this film. One hopes there will always be a demand for the truth, even in a diminishing market.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, October 8, 2011

USA. Rated M, 92 minutes.