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The Myth of The New York Times, in Documentary Form

Posted on Jul 6, 2011
AP / Mark Lennihan

By Chris Hedges

The documentary film “Page One: Inside the New York Times” is an infomercial for The New York Times. It says nothing about the internal dynamics of the institution. It fails to portray the titular Page 1 process. Most of the film is devoted instead to profiling the paper’s quirky media reporter, David Carr. This focus on Carr, who is at times engaging and at times pedantic, leaves viewers as ignorant about the workings of the paper as when they went into the theater. 

During the moments when “Page One” departs from the Carr narrative, it has no coherent pattern or internal logic. There are fleeting attempts throughout the film to acknowledge the wider institution. These scattered moments are abrupt and incoherent. Director Andrew Rossi throws out a dizzying array of issues, from the future of iPods to newspaper paywalls to the $250 million loan provided to the paper by the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim but never adequately explores any of them. 

The scenes showing Carr slowly gathering string for a story and prodding sources to talk are the most engaging in the film and at least illustrate how labor-intensive and difficult good reporting can be. They remind us how much poorer we will be if there are no longer institutions that make this work possible. By the end of the film we get a sense of Carr, who is a talented and dedicated reporter, and a few of the stories he covered, from CNN’s bizarre affiliation with Vice magazine to Comcast buying NBC. Carr, irascible and funny, is deeply grateful to the paper for giving him a stable job, especially after his checkered past as a crack addict who spent time in jail. Again and again he defends the goodness, integrity and sagacity of his employer. But while Carr and others who are interviewed, including David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker magazine, pay homage to The New York Times’ greatness and importance, the Times itself remains, in effect, offstage. These hymns of praise become like the munchkins lauding the great and powerful Oz to Dorothy. 

Carr, whose personal history makes him an anomaly at a company that attracts well-heeled and often overeducated reporters, is shown at work on a 5,000-word investigative piece with his editor Bruce Headlam. The article details the mismanagement at the Tribune Co., which owns the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. Carr exposes the “frat-boy culture” that plunged the Tribune Co. into chaos and bankruptcy. Sam Zell, the Tribune owner, is shown in the film making some truly stupid and disgusting statements, including deriding anyone who thinks journalism should contribute to the common good. Tribune’s onetime Chief Executive Officer Randy Michaels, who opened up his penthouse suite for long poker games, is not far behind Zell in his imbecility and outdoes him in personal impropriety. Two weeks after Carr’s article, Michaels is forced to resign. By comparison, of course, The New York Times looks majestic.

Rossi also follows the publication of the leaked cables provided to the paper, as well as to Der Spiegel and The Guardian, by WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange. The struggle by the paper’s editors to deal with the controversial material illuminates the clash between the closed, insular world of the Times and the technological revolution that has overtaken them. Brian Stelter, the young reporter on the media desk with Carr who began his career as a blogger, and who Carr quips was perhaps a robot created in the basement of the Times to destroy him, rues the technological backwardness of the newsroom. Stelter rolls his eyes as he points out that editors at the paper leap on stories he read about hours earlier on his Twitter account. The editors are seen trying to make the 21st century world of the Internet, instant messaging and Twitter fit within the 19th century rules of newsprint. Susan Chira, the paper’s foreign editor, dismisses Assange as a “source,” although Times Executive Editor Bill Keller admits in the film that Assange is in fact a partner. Chira also confesses that she had never heard of WikiLeaks before the group put out its video of civilians being gunned down by U.S. troops in Iraq from a helicopter. Chira typifies many at the paper who appear to believe that nothing really exists if it is not covered by The New York Times. Those running the paper, we see in this moment in the film, are struggling to adapt. The contents of the WikiLeaks cables dominate the paper’s front page for several days. But editors make snide and condescending comments about Assange. They argue about whether he can be considered a reporter. They dismiss him as an activist. And their smugness not only implies that they alone work from pure, honest and disinterested motives, but exposes their insecurities in a media landscape that on some level no longer needs them.   

The documentary touches on, although without much background information, Judith Miller, the reporter turned stenographer for the Bush White House in the buildup to the Iraq War, and Jason Blair, the habitual liar who falsified and plagiarized stories. Miller and Blair—and I was working for the paper when each of these scandals occurred—were not, as the film implies, rogue reporters who beguiled their way into a trusting newsroom. They embodied the most serious institutional failures. A more sophisticated filmmaker like Fred Wiseman, who had asked the Times management several times if he could film a documentary in the newsroom and was turned down, would have known what to do with this material. Miller and Blair were given free rein by senior management because they exhibited the amorality that is prized by the management. They served only their own careers and those editors who could make those careers advance. They were grotesque prototypes, to be sure, but they exemplified the subservience to authority and abject careerism that poisons the institution.


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By Sandy Ellen, August 11, 2011 at 10:41 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thank you for a great article. A few points I’d like to add.
-In all the years I reported out of Russia, I never saw a NY Times article that wasn’t first printed in The Moscow Times. (So much for the movie’s theory that everyone follows what the Times does.)
-the irony or perhaps the reality of this movie: A movie about journalism has failed to be a great journalist.  Failed to ask proper questions. Failed to answer the most obvious questions.
-the idea that the foreign editor had never heard of wikileaks before they realeased the video… Ummm… well isn’t that a problem right there?
- If the director wanted to examine why we should care about the potential death of the NY Times and New Media,  a through examination of what happens in society when there are no reporters out there asking city, local and federal gov’t questions, would have been the route to take. If a city’s infrastructure is falling apart (say for instance Montreal…) and no one demands the engineering reports from the Ministry of Transport.. then what happens?
-Saw this movie on the same day The Whistleblower is being premiered across Canada. Another story completely missed and continues to be ignored by the venerable NY Times: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0896872/
ie. the sale/use of sex slaves by the private armies and companies hired by the US, Britain and Canada in every war we are involved in… and tacitly condoned by the United Nations.

I have no idea what the point of this movie was. Except perhaps more proof that real journalism, as not demonstrated by this film, is really really hard to find.

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By lcl, July 21, 2011 at 8:22 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thanks for this great article, it gives me hope
there may be other Chris Hedge’s still at places
like the Times.

As a former school teacher I took part in a program
where the NYT was used as the basis for
curriculum…well not the NYT alone, the WSJ was
added for “balance.”

: (

For the readers looking for a better daily news
alternative, I have six words: “Democracy Now!
...Democracy Now! ...Democracy Now!”

The Times’ incredibly petty and alternate reality
repoting on Wikileaks (“the cables show how hard
working diplomats really are…” “the War Logs show
that detainees faired better in US custody”)was the
final nail in the coffin for me.

Thank God the economics of journalism are forcing
them out. I think there are good alternatives
already… although economics is still a tough
constraint for them. DN! is lucky enough to have
foundation funding, plus audience loyalty plus
small budgets.

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By GradyLeeHoward, July 15, 2011 at 3:12 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Don’t heavily moderated websites underwritten by
shadowy private tyrannies fall in the same category
as the Times? And don’t columnists who write for
these websites without questioning or investigating
their practices fall in the same category as Mr.
Keller, and Mr. Karr and Mr. Murdoch?

Remember how all the portal lights on the modems went
out in Egypt before people poured into Tahrir Square?
The screens may go dark while we are in Washington
starting Oct. 6…. and you know what that means. Do
you know what to do? (The hacking terrorists who cut
off your minders will be within the Corporato-
political Complex.) See Bo pee. See Bo pee on Barry’s
pants leg. See seal team six wrestle Bo to the
ground.

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By JM, July 11, 2011 at 7:36 pm Link to this comment

Leave it to Chris Hedges to see the forest and the trees, and what is in-between.
Thank you for doing the real deal on the New York Times Chris. I noticed the irresponsible promoting of the Iraq war (was reminded of Hearst); and letting Judith Miller loose to promote it
—but could hardly believe what was going on (conditioning runs deep until it doesn’t). You always teach me in depth about your subjects, and beyond. “War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning” was my introduction to your work—it blew my mind, so “right on”.

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By Not One More!, July 11, 2011 at 2:52 pm Link to this comment

Don’t Throw Me into the Briar Patch.

Not only do the conservatives view the Times as a left leaning institution, but even ‘democrats’ make that claim. And it couldn’t be further from the truth.

In the 2000 elections, at Ralph Nader’s Madison Square Rally in New York City (which was one of the more incredible positive experiences I have had), it was a capacity crowd, and Ralph tells the audience that the event will not be reported on by the New York Times.

And sure enough, there was nothing published the following day in the news section. He knew.

Did any of the other candidates have over 10,000 people show up at a rally where they had to pay? I don’t think do. (there was an article 2 days later in the entertainment section focusing on the musical acts).

I really don’t know why Nader doesn’t get more traction, since he is the only public figure who has spoken and acted in a way that could actually improve the human condition in the last 40 years. But I think it explains we are at the point where we are, where we allow the corporate fat cats dictate to us what we mice need. And we keep reelected the fat cats, and they keep getting fatter while us mice get less and less.

To all you supporters of the democratic party leadership- With the continued war, wall street bailouts, proposed cuts in medicare (have to seem strong to the conservatives), lack of universal health care, military based economy, continued destruction of the living planet that we depend on for our survival, do you feel that you picked the winning team?

You cannot have a corrupted government without having a corrupted mainstream media.

so it goes

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By Jim Pharo, July 11, 2011 at 1:13 pm Link to this comment

I recommend the McClatchey website as a regular daily hard news stop.  BBC ain’t
bad, either.

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By smitty8, July 11, 2011 at 12:59 pm Link to this comment

I wish someone would do a careful study to
determine the best overall source of news
online as a place me me to start my
mornings. I rather like the Guardian and
think USA Today, surprisingly, superior to
the NYT in important ways.

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By Salome, July 11, 2011 at 6:21 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It’s interesting to note which columns the NYTs will allow readers to comment on in its moderated, and limited comments feature.  Rarely, very rarely, any column that mentions Israel.  Wonder why?

Many people have suggested that, instead of the convoluted subscription/internet pricing scheme the Times recently adopted, the paper could charge a fee to readers who would like to be able to comment freely (decency presumed) on anything appearing in the paper.  Heaven forfend!  What consensus of opinion might emerge that the NYTs is so afraid of?

Currently,the NTYs is engaged in mushing opinion and news pieces together in such a manner that only a reader who gives the columns the strictest scrutiny will be able to tell which is which.

I look forward to the demise of The New York Times.

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By Chloé, July 10, 2011 at 1:04 pm Link to this comment

I can not say that I particularly like The New York Times, but frankly their building is simply beautiful.

(i’m a big skyscraper fan, we don’t have much here in paris :p)

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By Anarcissie, July 10, 2011 at 7:45 am Link to this comment

When was there ‘true journalism’?

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By weylguy, July 10, 2011 at 7:41 am Link to this comment

Hedges could have written a long rant about his personal experience with The Times, but wisely did not. This objectivity gives us a much better look into the problems that true journalism is faced with today, the biggest of which being that there is no true journalism anymore.

The Times seems to have learned nothing from the Judith Miller debacle, and neither have the American people. It’s truly sad to realize that the media-supported spin job that resulted in the Iraq War could happen all over again.

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By Eio, July 9, 2011 at 11:21 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The whole category of ‘liberalism’ is actually rather problematic. Who are the ‘liberals’? Tony Blair used to be a great liberal, and look how he ended up hand-in-hand with Bush… Sometimes I think an American liberal is someone who’s quite liberal with bullets and bombs (as long as the govt has all the guns).

But, of course, the word ‘conservative’ is just as problematic right now. In many respects, the paleo-conservative Ron Paul seems more liberal than any liberal. All these labels are now completely meaningless.

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By Burt Samuelson, July 9, 2011 at 9:15 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

In what ways would a reporter be “overeducated” so that it was a bad thing?

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By Billee, July 8, 2011 at 3:58 pm Link to this comment

Thank you, Chris Hedges, yet again.

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By Ehrenstein, July 8, 2011 at 12:55 pm Link to this comment

The NYT is now and has always been a CIA asset. It does not publish The Newa—only Newsiness

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By Katie Corbet, July 8, 2011 at 6:51 am Link to this comment

While I agree with virtually everything Chris Hedges publishes, something very important is missing from the critiques from the left. Where is the outrage in confronting the sheer ignorance of the American public? The ignorance of the populace is unprecedented in the modern world. Yeah we complain that “foreigners” are conspiracy theory prone, but at least they have a healthy dose of cynicism and skepticism about elite power. People in Europe are constantly out in the streets protesting. Aside from Wisconsin, where are our protests? Goes to show you where our priorities are! While corporate America wields a lot of power, it would be very difficult for even them to counter constant protests with millions upon millions of marchers. In a sense, we deserve what we get, after all, we re-elected the Bush/Cheney criminal enterprise.

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By Katie Corbet, July 8, 2011 at 6:48 am Link to this comment

While I agree with virtually everything Chris Hedges publishes, something very important is missing from the critiques from the left. Where is the outrage in confronting the sheer ignorance of the American public? The ignorance of the populace is unprecedented in the modern world. Yeah we complain that “foreigners” are conspiracy theory prone, but at least they have a healthy dose of cynicism and skepticism about elite power. People in Europe are constantly out in the streets protesting. Aside from Wisconsin, where are our protests? This is a stark and revealing indication of where our priorities are. If you want further proof, how can a mindless TV program attract the attention of tens of millions of viewers?? And while corporate America wields a lot of power, it would be very difficult for even them to counter constant protests with millions upon millions of marchers. In a sense, we deserve what we get, after all, we re-elected the Bush/Cheney criminal enterprise.

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By Jill Kurin, July 8, 2011 at 6:35 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I stopped reading the NY Times for good when they served as a propaganda machine for the Iraq war. It was not that they were “misguided” by the government, or that they “did not ask the right questions”. Quite the contrary. They were actively advocating for war, and purposefully silencing the facts that showed the lies of the government. The headline two days before the Iraq invasion was “Bush gives Saddam 48 hrs to step down”. The headline on the day of the invasion was “Saddam has chosen war”.

That says all.

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By gerard, July 7, 2011 at 9:26 pm Link to this comment

And one more thing:  Quoting to introduce the point:  “But editors make snide and condescending comments about Assange. They argue about whether he can be considered a reporter. They dismiss him as an activist. And their smugness not only implies that they alone work from pure, honest and disinterested motives, but exposes their insecurities in a media landscape that on some level no longer needs them.”

Perhaps the “net” no longer needs writers and editors to personally go out to obtain “leaks” as in the past, to search for and collate information.  That doesn’t mean there is no use for writers and editors—hopefully people with conscience.  There are plenty of examples online of people (hopefully of conscience) who condense masses of information and format it into concise, pertinent (and more or less truthful) bite-size pieces, in the process making it more easily assimilable for readers.

The problem comes in when agencies whose primary interest or necessity is in making money by this process.  They will “hire”  such people and at least to some extent dictate what they can and cannot assemble.  Then we will be practically back to square one.

Factotums will hire “hackers” and such, and (under the guidance of “surveillence” agencies} men and women will be paid to assemble only those factoids that get through the scrutinizers’ mesh.  That is, if “central control” gets rid of “hacking” in the interests of political control, and there are no WikiLeakers to “let it all hang out” somewhere within public reach. We will be back to Left,Right and Center, and the unorthodox will be mostly off the ordinary radar.

Sooner rather than later, we won’t have any more choice than we have now—maybe less. I don’t see any way to avoid it unless the entire world demands “Hands of Political Power Off the Internet!” and we learn to tolerate the excesses for the sake of
access.

Dangerous?  Yes.  Absolutely requires the universal development of personal integrity and legal restrictions to prevent personal exploitation. Possible?  Maybe.  We’ll find out soon ehough.

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By Tobysgirl, July 7, 2011 at 4:55 pm Link to this comment

I’m sorry if I’m repeating what someone else has written, but I’ve always thought one could write a hilarious book quoting nothing but NYT editorials. The few I’ve read over the years always appear to be written by someone who knows absolutely zilch about the subject matter, couched in a tone of absolute pedantic authority.

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By omygodnotagain, July 7, 2011 at 4:32 pm Link to this comment

This comment
The Times newsroom, like most corporate nerve centers, is a labyrinth of intrigue, gossip, back-biting, rumor, false piety, rampant ambition, betrayal and deception. Those who play this game well are repugnant.

Could have been written by Hunter S Thompson
The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.

Sums up the media industry

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By Read me Chris!!!, July 7, 2011 at 2:56 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Please read Super Sad True Love Story!!!  (by Gary Shteyngart).  It’s your vision on the future realized, a brilliant novel.

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By gerard, July 7, 2011 at 2:41 pm Link to this comment

In my opinion, the “myth” is not so much the NYT or the ignorance that is presumed to occur as a result of either its life or death.  Or of the Internet, for that matter.  Until the general culture stops hankering after sensationalism, commercialism, glitz, spin—until comfortable lies and sleaze are no longer allowed to prevail, to pander, to sell to the lowest I.Q.—a general effort to improve and maintain knowledge is unlikely. Truth, like everything else, has to be loved into prevailing.

We sacrifice public education at the risk of national ignorance, jingoism and decay. In the last analysis it all depends upon whether we care for ourselves or whether self-loathing prevails.

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By chaztv, July 7, 2011 at 12:07 pm Link to this comment

Even before the NYT installed the Pay Wall, I was
well aware that the majority of the stories in the
“paper” were dated, irrelevant, wire service
available or just plane ‘ol the headline said it all.

The Pay Wall is wonderful! 

It has further sharpened my editorial acumen.  I’m
down to two stories per week.  Usually those are just
human interest reading, nothing of real importance.

When I saw the trailer for Page One at the local
cinema and the narrator asked the question “Could the
the New York Times become…” something to the effect
of irrelevant, I blurted out “Yes!”

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By E. McGrath, July 7, 2011 at 11:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Anarcissie: I don’t think Hedges has a “good twin” that appears every now and
then.  He doesn’t venerate rags like the New York Times–he simply thinks that
the loss of newsprint will have terrible consequences.  If internet journalism
was, on the whole, better, he’d support it (as would I).  But the current
configuration of the Internet (mostly everything for free, image based, etc.)
makes improvement unlikely.  Online access to news can be great for people
who search for it; however most don’t, and many websites are highly partisan,
so you get a very narrow viewpoint.  That’s not to say that papers like the
Times were/are “open.”  Far from the case!  But you would still be exposed to
something ever so slightly different than your specific viewpoints when you
opened the paper.  There was also more “factual” information; the falsehoods,
as Howard Zinn, Hedges, and Chomsky have pointed out, had much to do with
omission.  Now there are outright lies.  Once again, not that there weren’t
outright lies before, but the trend seems to have accelerated.  All of that long-
winded diatribe is what I think Hedges is trying to say.  Please let me now if
you think I’m incorrect.

That being said, I don’t think that any of this is really the problem.  Did all
working class people who fought tooth and nail for decent living conditions
read Sartre, Camus, Sorel, Marx, and so on?  No.  But they did have an
environment where they could find the vocabulary to articulate what their
problems were, and what to do about them.  That’s missing now.  There are
many other problems, that’s just one.  Hedges talks about “The Liberal Class” (a
complete misnomer) abandoning the working class, but as Sorel said, if the
middle class isn’t scared of workers. they’ll become ideological allies of elites. 
Anyway, I’m done: feeling longwinded today, I suppose.

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By Ben, July 7, 2011 at 10:40 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Hedges’ first sentence is not only right on the nose but a sad watermark of our
corporate-controlled utopia that would make Edward Bernays pitch a tent.

Thanks for telling the truth Chris.

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By Egomet Bonmot, July 7, 2011 at 9:34 am Link to this comment

Loved the smell of fresh newsprint and the midnight delivery the night before.  And the crossword.

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By Jim Pharo, July 7, 2011 at 9:15 am Link to this comment

Many years ago, a short headline on what was probably the Metro section
taught me what I needed to know about the NYT’s values.  That headline
accompanied a photo (IIRC) of a small black family that looked miserable.  It
read, “In Harlem Tenement, Despair Reigns.”  What struck me was that it was
being announced as though it was news: being poor and black in NYC turned
out to be pretty dreadful!  Who knew?

The prevailing editorial model seems to be to attract readers who consider
themselves not quite rich enough, and who are old-fashioned strivers, even
though the make from $300k a year and up…

The Times reminds me of the great Eddie Izzard’s line, in which he pretends to
be the Queen of England meeting an ordinary man.  He says (in his best QE
voice): “A plumber?  What on EARTH is that?”

The paywall has given me adequate incentive to leave the NYT alone, save for
Krugman.  I feel no less enlightened, given that so much of the actual news is
available elsewhere without the condescending attitude and immoral values.

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By Anarcissie, July 7, 2011 at 9:11 am Link to this comment

kerryrose—My understanding is that the Times has always hated unions, a case for them of the lower orders getting out of hand and interfering with the Times‘s sacred mission of telling everyone what to think.

What is really funny is to see the Times referred to as ‘the liberal media’ by right-wing ranters.

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By Egomet Bonmot, July 7, 2011 at 8:53 am Link to this comment

” ... a media landscape that on some level no longer needs them.”

On some level?  Hedges is being kind to some old colleagues I think.  The Times is a dinosaur, it’s the world’s best buggy whip manufacturer.  Hedges & Truthdig are far more relevant.

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By SarcastiCanuck, July 7, 2011 at 8:08 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Chris,as always you have hit the nail squarely on the head.True fascism in our society is spearheaded by whoever controls the pursestrings.Truth is whatever the boss says it is.In our democratic and capatilist systems,whoever can fire you,has you by the balls.Every corporation is run by dictators who dictate down to thier mini dictators all the way down the line.This is what we have evolved into and I don’t see anything changing in the future.Do you?Please enlighten me if you have an improved system because I’m all ears and like John Lennon,still a dreamer…

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By Truthdigger, July 7, 2011 at 5:18 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

‘Interesting that Hedges worked for the NYT for so long.  Having just bounced out of the Fourth of July realm of normalcy, I am sad to continue to read the ever-constant negative spin on our country that hedges continues to foster.  Truth and the NYT has bad and truth has good parts. If you read Hedges continually and nothing else, a caveat for you:  Your brain becomes what it is fed. For all its faults, the USA still cares about its own and (true, perhaps far too many) others in need.

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By kerryrose, July 7, 2011 at 4:54 am Link to this comment

I was right out of college, and a partner in a computer graphic business that was contracted by the Times. We were really freelancers that somehow became a business when the Times asked us to take work out of the building.  We were too young and stupid to ask why. Although we worked in our living room, there was a rush in entering the building for meetings, and feeling a part of something so ‘hallowed.’

What was never openly acknowledged was that the old-fashioned production union was being busted.  The paste-up and layout guys were being driven out.  Because union rules prevented on-site non-union labor, the NY Times outsources computer graphic work to us.

When they finally got rid of all the ‘old guys’ they didn’t need us anymore, either.

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By Anarcissie, July 7, 2011 at 4:51 am Link to this comment

It’s sweet to see Hedges’s good twin show up and rip the New York Times to shreds.  Of course, the complete story would requires volumes; the NYT is connected to the U.S. ruling class the way Pravda was connected to the Soviet ruling class back in the day.

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By Billy Pilgrim, July 7, 2011 at 4:30 am Link to this comment

My brother recently retired after 30 years at The Times
as a writer and editor in a number of departments at
the paper.  Everything Hedges says is true.

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