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Documentary Review: ‘Page One: Inside the New York Times’

June 15, 2011

Page One: Inside the New York Times focuses on several facets of the paper itself—its day-to-day operations, the folks who write, edit, and run the paper, and its struggle to remain competitive in the age of the digital news, but it also provides a glimpse into the quickening change of newsmedia as well.

Director Andrew Rossi (Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven) was granted a year’s access inside one of the oldest papers in America to film, and from what must have been a warehouse of footage, he scaled it down to a mere 88 minutes that covers an exhaustive array of topics through the camera’s own eyes and those of The Times‘ colorful cadre of show-runners. Among the faces we meet and follow are the paper’s Executive Editor Bill Keller, Jill Abramson, the Managing Editor, Brian Stetler, the cherubish Media reporter, and, mostly, Media Columnist David Carr, the plain-talking, ex-cocaine addict.

Rossi does an excellent job of capturing the toils, trials, and tension of a daily newspaper with practically every shot. We see reporters and editors ensconced in their workspaces, surrounded on all sides by endless stacks of books, papers, and computer monitors. We see them plan a day’s paper and then go to work furiously, bicker amongst themselves, check their facts, chew out interviewees, and feel the tension as they wait for a call back from one source minutes before the deadline. As someone who worked in the publication industry (not newspapers, but we had our share of heavily-loaded days), this is familiar ground, and as much as a casual viewer may think these scenes are played up for the camera, I doubt they are; not only have I seen editors screaming at each department to speed things up, I was happy to be one of them.

Interspersed with the daily workings are vignettes of some major stories from 2009-10: the WikiLeaks’ publication of the Afghan war logs, the Tribune bankruptcy, the release of the iPad, but also more broad topics, such as The Times’s online business model, the 2003 Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal, even Watergate. They provide a series of consistently interesting diversions, but their inclusion can be abrupt, and no discernible connection is made from one to the other. Perhaps there was no adequate segue, but it disrupts the pace and leaves the film somewhat scattershot. I admire Rossi’s ambition, but there’s a feeling that he aims for too much.

The largest segment is dedicated to David Carr, who roams The Times’ halls like a specter, clamoring for the old days and attacking the Internet press gang’s lack of journalistic integrity. Carr has a wicked tongue, and the camera loves not just watching him lash out at The Times’ critics but even in more benign settings as sitting on his back porch, with a cigarette in one hand, a Coke Zero in the other, and his trusty yellow Lab by his side. In one sequence we see him walking the darkened streets of New York, breathlessly detailing his previous life as an addict. “It was a different time,” he reflects, passing a derelict sleeping on the sidewalk, “It’s him.” It’s a wonderful scene, and Carr comes closest to providing a consistent thread throughout the film as he waxes heavy for the glory days when the printing press largely controlled the information fed to the public.

Which brings me to my major criticism. I don’t want to be that guy who accuses Inside The New York Times for pushing a hidden agenda, because the film itself doesn’t overtly attack the rise of digital media, but it certainly doesn’t mind leaving that job to Carr. If he isn’t the one subject with the greatest amount of screen time, he certainly pervades the film, and his segments concentrate on his defense of competent, trained (read “Times’”) journalists as opposed to any bum with a keyboard. Fair enough. In one funny sequence, Carr, at a SXSW panel chides a fellow panelist for his news aggregate website by arguing that without The Times and other newspapers, his site wouldn’t exist. Again, fair enough, but if The Times and other papers do eventually vanish, what’s to keep that site from linking to other websites? Carr raises some good points, but no counterarguments to them are ever offered; it’s a subtle, one-sided debate that cloaks itself in delivering only bits and pieces of the argument then moving on to another topic. Yes, that’s his opinion, but it’s also a large portion of the film as well as the footage Rossi chose to include from a year’s work. If Rossi agrees with Carr, which he seems to, why not just come out and say it? I don’t have anything against a documentarian with an agenda, even one I don’t personally agree with, and it may have served Rossi better to take a stand instead of, at least to me, hiding behind one of his subjects.

Still Page One: Inside the New York Times, despite its flaws, is still a fascinating look into the changing world of journalism. And while the leaps from subject to subject can be chaotic, it doesn’t make them any less interesting.

Rating: 3.5/5

Page One: Inside the New York Times is rated R. Directed by Andrew Rossi. Written by Andrew Rossi and Kate Novack. Starring David Carr, Brian Stelter, Bruce Headlam, Richard Perez-Pena, Tim Arango, Bill Keller


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One Response to “ Documentary Review: ‘Page One: Inside the New York Times’ ”

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