Extra! Extra! See 'Page One: Inside The New York Times'
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Andrew Rossi's love letter to The Gray Lady, and old-style news reporting, is never fatuous or doting. His sharp documentary taps into the life rhythms of The New York Times, America's most respected newspaper, while deconstructing the differences between information and agenda-driven opinion; objective journalism and news-for-fun-and-profit; seasoned, sourced news and Twittering or iReporting; old media and new media. Even as "Page One: Inside The New York Times" explores the financially beleaguered Times -- its history, evolution, scandals, biggest scoops and personalities -- this thinking person's doc raises a larger meta-question: What constitutes truth in an age when information's become a valueless commodity, a reality show that morphs to satisfy the public's appetites?
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"Page One" can be as tense as any thriller, starring the journalistic equivalent of colorful private eyes, collaboratively sniffing out and debating complex truths. Rossi homes in on the idiosyncratic staffers of the NYT's Media Department, most notably the irascible, raspy-voiced David Carr, a onetime crack addict and now brilliant reporter and fierce proponent of "Times exceptionalism." Then there's pudgy Brian Stelter, the wunderkind blogger (Carr initially called him "a robot sent to kill me") turned print journalist who wrangled the WikiLeaks brouhaha. Riding herd on the department is editor Bruce Headlam, a shrewd, black-haired Irish charmer given to casting wicked-funny, can-you-believe-this? glances at the camera.
Presiding over all is Bill Keller, the unflappable, sad-eyed executive editor who calls the shots at daily page-one meetings, mourns the paper's massive layoffs ("We should be wearing bloody butchers smocks"), and exudes a kind of melancholy resignation, as if he's already internalized a future without newsprint.
Carr's the star of "Page One," all snap, crackle and unpredictable pop. Lobbing nonstop grenades at arrogant new-media types, this fearless eccentric defends the Times against barbarians at the gates. No Luddite, though: He's addicted to Twitter's "wired collective voice." It's riveting to watch him pursue, like some heat-seeking missile, facts and sources to back up his big story about Sam Zell, the crass, profit-obsessed mogul who bought and bankrupted Chicago's Tribune Co.
Back in the day, Keller wistfully recalls, the powerful "NYT effect" guaranteed that news didn't exist until the paper of record made it so, and then further investigations and variations on the story percolated through every newspaper worth its salt. Now, at the tail end of the analog era, stories rise and ebb online, often before any newspaper has time to catch up. Websites like Huffington Post, Newser and Drudge aggregate news articles from all over, fast and for free. Honey of a deal, but it begs the question: Who's paying real journalists to travel, do interviews, suss things out on the ground, maybe even risk their lives to bring home the news?
When Times reporter Tim Arango is posted to Iraq, his send-off is almost ceremonial. A little separate from the others crowding the bar, the grave young man already seems consecrated to a special calling. Come home soon, implore friends and colleagues, but none are surprised when Arango sinks his teeth so deeply into the Baghdad beat, he's permanently assigned there. Later we see Carr, who was most solemn during that leave-taking, sitting across a table from Vice magazine hotshots, listening to the kind of neophyte Iraq reporter who simultaneously disses and feeds off longstanding Times coverage. So swiftly and deftly does Carr uncoil to take him off at the knees -- "You don't have the right to insult the NYT!" -- the ass is slow to realize he's a dead man. You'll want to cheer.
Maybe Times screw-ups like Jason Blair, plagiarizer extraordinaire, and reporter Judith Miller, mouthpiece for government sources who "sold" the Iraq war, are inevitable in the context of consumers hooked on grabby headlines. Why not just make the news up? Would avid media-eaters care, as long as it's spicy-hot stuff? At one point in "Page One," every TV news anchor parrots a story backed by NBC's ever-reliable foreign correspondent Richard Engel. Perched on a troop truck, Engel declaims "the official Pentagon announcement" that the war in Iraq is over. Trouble is, the Pentagon knows zilch about any official announcement. It takes an old Times hand, his Rolodex (or BlackBerry) packed with reliable sources, to ferret out -- in a matter of minutes, not hours -- that the "news" was nothing more than a "made-for-TV moment."
When Jill Abramson was recently appointed Times executive editor, the first female to fill the position in the paper's 160-year history, she recalled growing up in a home where the Times was tantamount to "religion, absolute truth." The literal-minded booboisie promptly broke out in pious hives. "Page One" makes you wonder how long before pseudo news and dumbed-down "information" stream in a perfect, endlessly entertaining circle, from Twitter to YouTube to Google to Facebook and back again.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.