“Just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and look at some poop doesn’t give you a right to insult what we do,” David Carr interjects calmly during his interview with Vice magazine co-founder Shane Smith, who was putting down The New York Times as he boasts his poop-sighting, cannibalism-exposing video report on Liberia. It is early in Page One: Inside The New York Times that director Andrew Rossi and co-writer Kate Novak establishes the straight-shooting Carr, a media reporter of The Times, as the unwavering advocate for the one of the largest newspapers in the United States. The showdown (or smackdown) between Carr and the Vice dudes is only the tip of the iceberg in the inevitable struggle old media institutions face as technology rapidly changes the way we acquire information.
Despite its title, Rossi’s documentary spends relatively little time showing the general operations of the newsroom. Instead, he sets his camera mostly on the Media Desk staff, whose job is to report on the changes in the media industry. The fact that The Times created this meta-reporting department in 2008 speaks volumes to how quickly the media business is evolving in the internet age and the challenges an old institution faces in order to stay relevant. Newspaper circulations and advertisements have dropped sharply in the past ten years. Many once proud metropolitan papers have folded but The Times, which has its fair share of struggles, still stands tall in the industry. Page One has no shortage of industry insiders giving their two cents on the obvious gloom and doom for newspapers, yet at the same time many (including Carl Bernstein) stress the importance of a trustworthy institution and the craft of journalism. On the flip side, internet media outlets like Gawker and The Huffington Post enjoy the status of dinosaur killers and declare the new way delivers more stories faster to the public. Gawker’s slogan is “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news” and Newser’s motto is “Read less know more”. There is no secret that we have reached the age of cheap, fast and out of control.
When Wikileaks released a video of U.S. Army helicopters killing dozens on the ground in Baghdad, questions were raised about the necessity of a middleman like The Times when allegedly raw information can be distributed to millions easily. Allegedly,” because as groundbreaking as Wikileaks was, its operators had a clear and forthright agenda. Page One attempts to use a few headline news stories like this one to illustrate this epic battle between the old and the new. As Wikileaks continues to release confidential diplomatic cables, the spotlight turns to its collaboration with media establishments like The New York Times, Der Spiegel and The Guardian to expose government secrets, much like the old times of Watergate. Perhaps this strategic arrangement has vindicated, albeit momentarily, the Times’s status as a trusted name for the purpose for spreading the information effectively.
The physical existence of a newspaper has come to symbolize a romantic and almost nostalgic idea in the face of competition against the online page-view vultures, at least in the eyes of the Page One filmmakers. But inclusion of the Tribune Company’s downfall in the film, through Carr’s reporting, serves as a cautionary tale of how any media giant can go down the drain in the wrong hands. Page One greedily attempts to cover the defiant struggle of The Times on both a macro and micro level. While the documentary is handsomely edited and earnestly crowd-pleasing, the amount of material and subplots is overwhelming and distracting. Carr, who turned his life around after his bouts with drugs and struggling as a single parent, is incisive and charming enough to command a documentary of his own. Promising young reporters like Tim Arango and Brian Stelter also provide a fascinating look into the professional trajectories of the paper’s staff. The documentary has no shortage of interesting material, but it suffers severely from a complete lack of focus. Rossi and company try to cramp too much in one film and seemingly has no desire to cut out anything relevant to the cause. Showing reporters at work is an enticing angle. As is The Times’s struggle as a company. Maybe iPad will save the day. Okay, editorial meetings are cool, too. They are all supposed to serve the film’s narrative, but Rossi can’t seem to tie them all together. Having a story-worthy subject is only half the battle (or probably way less than half) in documentary filmmaking. The most successful documentary filmmakers instill their mise en scène through astute and clear-eyed editing that draws a film out of hundreds of hours of footage. Page One is a noble effort in telling the story of The Times fighting the good fight but the overloading headlines will have you flipping through the pages.
Page One: Inside The New York Times is playing at the MFAH on 9/1 (7:00pm), 9/2 (9:00pm), 9/3 (9:00pm), 9/4 (7:00pm) and 9/5 (2:00pm).