Kernel Rating (out of 5):
Length: 88 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Age Appropriate for: 15+. Cursing (lots of uses of the f-words) is the real culprit here. There’s also a grainy video showing American soldiers shooting innocent civilians in Afghanistan and another video shot in Liberia, where rebels say their fighters kill innocent children and drink their blood. There’s also mention of workplace sexual harassment, with discussion of pornography and forced sexual acts from female employees.
For a young journalist, ‘Page One: Inside the New York Times’ is like watching the end of an era. Mostly everyone is jaded, too many people are hoping the iPad will save the industry and there’s a sense of hopelessness lingering in the air — yet still, the documentary makes me want to hug my reporter’s notebook.
By Roxana Hadadi
Watch “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” and you’ll see what you want. Times media reporter David Carr is either an old codger or a still-kicking relic of forgotten newsrooms. Fellow reporter and Twitter enthusiast Brian Stelter is obnoxious in his judgments or a needed slap of reality for archaic co-workers. And Arianna Huffington, queen of The Huffington Post blog network? OK, she may just be insufferable.
But that’s the thing: “Page One,” a documentary created by filmmaker Andrew Rossi, who spent most of 2010 following the journalists on the Times’ media desk, a division formed in 2008, both affirms what other reporters already know about the faltering industry and agrees with loyalists clinging to mainstream media. In the interest of fairness, Rossi includes a bunch of different media people here, from The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic and The New Yorker (unsurprisingly, no one from The Washington Post, the Times’ rival), some of whom praise the importance of the paper and its mission and others who say its destined to crumble. How you come into “Page One,” whether you want newspapers to beat the odds or instead think bloggers are the new generation, will probably be how you walk out of it, too.
For journalism junkies, however, “Page One” is wonderful in its unprecedented level of access. I used to watch “All the President’s Men” and dream I was in the Post newsroom with Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (I’ll take the desk in the corner, please!), but it remained a fantasy because the movie was always a movie. “Page One,” while slick and sometimes too reliant on rapid cuts, is always a documentary, an inside look at editors’ meetings and the relationships between a reporter and his sources. (Unfortunately, no female reporters or editors are followed here; the media desk’s two women opted out. Also upsetting is that the Times’ new executive editor, Jill Abramson, named in June, is barely in a few scenes.)
Yet while the documentary seems to gloss over some of the more pressing questions about the paper — how many people they expect to sign up to pay for content, how its cut of 100 newsroom positions affected its editorial coverage — it sets up nice heroes in Carr and Stelter, members of different journalism generations united in working to ensure the Times’ legacy. Carr doesn’t take crap from anyone, a growling journalism veteran who has survived crack addiction; Stelter, in his mid-20s, was hired by the Times after the paper wrote a centerpiece story about his television blog.
Each of them is impressive in his own way, and each of them makes me want to abandon everything and become an investigative journalist and get some huge story and show people how important the news is. It’s a dream “Page One” masterfully transmits to the viewer, especially when Carr, during a meeting with the founders of the edgy magazine Vice, interrupts CEO Shane Smith when the guy flippantly bashes the Times while discussing a trip he took to Liberia. “We’ve had reporters reporting on genocide. Just because you put on a f—— safari helmet and went and looked at some poop doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do,” Carr attacks; Smith, visually shamed, tries to cover up his slight by saying he’s not a journalist. “Obviously,” Carr smirks, and my heart was won.
But while there are clear good guys here, the documentary doesn’t dwell on any subject’s impact on the Times long enough for its weight to truly resonate. Numerous people mention the industry’s declining revenues and comment on the Times’ role in it all: The paper has been on “death watch” since former Wall Street Journal reporter Sarah Ellison has been covering media. The Times’ “authoritative tone … is now many, many voices,” because of citizen journalism, says Clay Shirky, professor of new media at New York University. “News is not dying,” says Jeff Jarvis, author of “What Would Google Do?”, but how newspapers approach new business models is like ancient people using “stone tablets,” sniffs Huffington at a conference. David Simon, legendary former reporter with The Baltimore Sun who wrote and produced the TV show “Homicide: Life on the Street,” based on his same-named book, and later created the cult TV show “The Wire,” tries to argue with her, but there’s no stopping Huffington. She critiques newspapers like it’s her job (and I guess, unfortunately, it is).
But while it’s reassuring to see Times’ staff shrug off these concerns and vow to work harder and go after big stories — like Carr, who targets the Tribune Co.’s head, Samuel Zell, and CEO Randy Michaels, after they drive the company to the worst media bankruptcy of all time — there’s too much going on to really feel like we understand how the Times will cope. There’s a lot of editors’ meeting footage, and Carr hanging out at home with his dog, and Keller staring around his newsroom with a wistful smile on his face, but the paper’s plan to charge readers for content is only mentioned near the end of the film. Since the documentary only focuses on the media desk, we don’t get to hear about how other departments are coping with this tough time. A few Times’ staff members who are laid off as part of the 100 newsroom cuts are interviewed, but we don’t know if there are more cuts planned. What happens next? The audience doesn’t know, and that’s probably because the Times doesn’t really know, either.
As what it is, though — a slice of a year inside the Times, compared to what was going on in mainstream media at the same time — “Page One” resonates in saddening and serious ways. Carr is good value whenever he’s brusque, brazen and everything a hard-hitting journalist should be, but it’s sobering to think he may not have a job in a few years. Stay strong, journalism: “Page One: Inside the New York Times” proves we still need you.
“Page One: Inside the New York Times” is playing in limited release in the Washington, D.C., area. Showtimes are available at Landmark E Street Cinema in Northwest D.C. and at AMC Loews Shirlington 7 in Arlington, Va.