Friday, July 1, 2011

Page One: Inside The New York Times

All The News, And An Existence Fit For Deliberation

David Carr, Media Investigative Reporter for the Times at work during Andrew Rossi's documentary "Page One: Inside The New York Times". Magnolia Pictures

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
day, July 1, 2011

Andrew Rossi gets unprecedented access to the newsroom and offices of The New York Times and delivers a fascinating, moving documentary about journalism, fact-checking, reputation and the changing face of news in "Page One: Inside The New York Times".  The film expands its release across the country today.

For a year (2009-2010), Mr. Rossi follows various figures from the Times and finds a news organization in a state of flux.  David Carr, the newspaper's media reporter, is on the trail of several stories, including sexual harassment allegations against several employees under businessman Sam Zell and the Tribune Company.  "Page One" sounds a cautionary tone about business compromising news, and the sordid details of Mr. Zell's troubled company is a prime example.  In a separate episode Mr. Carr defends The New York Times in a memorable response to an executive he interviews from instant-news media fledgling company Vice. 

As a contrast to news lifers like Mr. Carr "Page One" glimpses younger reporters who will help shape the Grey Lady's future.  Brian Stelter is introduced as a kind of dyed-in-the-wool, old-soul newspaper man, having started in journalism as the founder of a news blog.  He has his finger on the pulse of the explosive WikiLeaks story that became a cause célèbre, and appears to have a firm grasp of his role as well as what news is supposed to do.

If you ever wanted to know what it's like to spend time in a newsroom, Mr. Rossi takes you there.  We get a fly-on-the-wall look at discussions between Mr. Carr and the newspaper's sharp, thoughtful media desk editor Bruce Headlam.  There are some excellent, noteworthy exchanges.  Small moments are bigger than you expect.  On a television we see a most fascinating and troubling moment: an NBC News on-air declaration in 2010 that "this (its own news report) constitutes the official announcement" of the Pentagon's pullout of final U.S. ground forces from Iraq.  Reporter Richard Engel of NBC News is seen embedded with a U.S. military convoy in Iraq.  The conversation between Mr. Headlam and a senior editor surrounding this disturbing episode is priceless. 

Watching "Page One" gave me the feeling of wanting to work at The Times, to ask the questions that the documentary's participants ask each other.  To get to know the people who shape the news and make decisions on it.  Some of the relationships between Times editors and reporters in this extremely stressful business are intimate and deep.  There's a strong sense of camaraderie.  The farewell held for reporter Tim Arango, sent off to the Middle East to open and head a news bureau there, exemplifies this. 

I find it hard to believe however, that in his year of shadowing The Times Mr. Rossi didn't uncover any shouting matches or tensions in this closely-knit incubator of a news establishment.  Were any combustible episodes edited out to avoid sensationalist or soap-operatic bents that might disrupt the documentary's tone?  Or is this the way The Times really is?  Were omissions of discord a precondition of Mr. Rossi's 12-month tenure?

A scene from "Page One: Inside The New York Times". Magnolia Pictures

"Page One", a multi-faceted look at journalism and its economic realities, is best when it examines the future of news and the competing philosophies of those in the Times and those interviewed outside it.  To his credit, Mr. Rossi avoids churning out a puff-piece on the nation's most respected paper of record, and gives both the Times and its detractors a fair hearing.  Within the newsroom, introspection works well as employees at the venerable paper recall its undignified moments (Judith Miller and Jayson Blair.) 

There are also personal stories.  Mr. Carr offers up an unvarnished look at his own struggles with serious drug addiction, and raising his children as a single father.  This moment is moving, even heroic, though Mr. Carr certainly doesn't intend for it to be.

The ever-growing industry of media news personalities is an ocean that Mr. Rossi avoids wading in as "Page One" sticks to a "just-the-facts-ma'am" approach in its storytelling.  There's never a dull moment during the 89 minutes you spend with people you may have been reading regularly, and to see their faces and get to know them beyond the words they write brings additional context, if not closeness, to them.

"Page One" is often riveting and exciting, sometimes packing as much drama and tension as great films like Michael Mann's "The Insider", which chronicled the CBS Corporate/CBS News fight over Brown & Williamson and Jeffrey Wigand for the famous "60 Minutes" piece in the 1990s on Mr. Wigand.  "Page One" is as vivid, if not more so, than "All The President's Men", which recalled Bob Woodard and Carl Bernstein's coverage of the Watergate break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in 1972.

Ever watchable, "Page One" is a marvelous exposé that doesn't waste time in awe of its subject matter.  Wonderfully detailed, rich and entertaining, the documentary gives a sense of the pressures of providing timely (and more importantly, accurate) news, regardless of 24-hour-cable news cycles and online challenges.  I was enthralled by the deliberation over news content and decision-making.  I was moved by the long-serving Times employees whose lives change dramatically after layoffs. 

"Page One" shows what really happens to middle-aged people who are suddenly laid off, unlike "Larry Crowne", albeit a film I highly recommend for its sweetness and enthusiasm, if nothing else.  "Page One" is an education in news, ideas, philosophies and newsroom know-how, and easily satisfies as one of the year's most alive and dynamic experiences on the big screen.

With free reign Mr. Rossi uncovers a confident newsroom staff in their assessments of The Times as a viable institution amidst the Internet's rapid realigning of news and instant news content delivery.  Will The New York Times survive the changes around and within it?  The question is posed several times during "Page One".  While the economic climate has made many newspapers casualties in a bloodletting that continues, the Times remains as tall, strong, flawed and storied as ever.

With: New York Times employees -- some you know, others you may not -- and media people you will likely immediately recognize.

(This review also can be read here at San Francisco Indie Movie Examiner)

"Page One" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for language including some sexual references.  The film's running time is one hour and 29 minutes.

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