May 19, 2013
The Myth of The New York Times, in Documentary Form
Posted on Jul 6, 2011
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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