A STAR IS BORN The film comes to life when it shows media columnist David Carr pushing hard for on-the-record quotes or slamming his headset in frustration.
The New YorkTimes is not like other newspapers. Just for starters, other newspapers don't have a massive national and international audience waiting eagerly each day for their journalistic efforts to land on their doorstep.
This makes the Times' struggles through the great Internet media transformation simultaneously more interesting and less relevant than the experience of typical papers — a conundrum timidly danced around by the filmmakers behind the new documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times.
From the first frames, when we hear media critic Howard Kurtz declaring that "the newspaper business is in deep trouble," Page One presents itself as a film about the big picture of the tsunami threatening traditional news media. The Times is certainly touched by that wave, but most of that tale is happening elsewhere. Thus the film casts its frenetic glance briefly across Gawker, Apple, Twitter, Huffington Post, WikiLeaks, ProPublica, Monster.com, Newser, and the Tribune Company, among others.
To bridge the gulf between the anomalous Times and the story they want to tell about the broader media world, the filmmakers train their cameras on a nexus between the two: the Times media desk. In particular, they make a star of media reporter David Carr, a gravel-voiced, perpetually perturbed former drug addict who speaks intelligently and passionately about the challenges facing the newspaper business.
Carr is eminently watchable, especially when he's shown actually doing his job. These are the moments when the film generates a spark of life: we see Carr pushing for on-the-record quotes; telling the subject of a story about the damaging documents he has obtained; and slamming his headset to the desk at the end of a frustrating interview.
Watching Carr work those stories reveals little about the media revolution, and nothing about its effects on the Times. And most of the internal-Times stories covered in Page One — brief hashing over the carcasses of Judith Miller, Jayson Blair, and the decision to print WikiLeaks material — have little to do with those challenges either. Even a sad interlude, from late 2009, where then–executive editor Bill Keller lays off 100 newsroom employees, fails to provide any sense of why it happened.
The most interesting episode comes late in the film, when NBC News reports on the "official" withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq. Times editors struggle through the day over how to cover this, because they can't get confirmation from the Pentagon or the White House that this is anything more than an NBC-created television story. Should they report that NBC News is reporting the official end of combat? If they don't, and other major papers do, will they look bad? Should they report on it, but with a skeptical spin? Should they write a media story about NBC News creating the story?
Although unacknowledged in the film, this is the type of decision that other news media make every day about stories reported in the Times. So it's interesting to see the Times editors make a final decision, sometime after seven o'clock that evening, not to write about the "end of combat troops" story at all, and to take their lumps for it in the morning if need be.
Or, so the documentary says. In fact, the Times posted a story on its Web site at 8:25 that night, relaying what NBC News had reported but cautioning that the official date for the end of combat was still two weeks off. Turns out you can't believe everything you see — on NBC News, in the New York Times, or even in a documentary about the news business.