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Page One: Inside The New York Times Reviewed
Jeremy Allen , September 14th, 2011 12:04

Jeremy Allen analyses this fascinating peek behind the scenes at one of America’s most respected newspapers

Redundancies are a part of modern life. And yet when a seasoned hack from the New York Times falls on her sword, it's with the pathos of Satan in Paradise Lost rather than your common-or-garden HR rep organising one last piss up at the Hoop and Grapes. But then again, nothing is ever ordinary at this Pulitzer Prize-winning titan of American journalism, printed in the Big Apple since 1851. Page One: Inside the New York Times is therefore compelling viewing, made compulsive by the poetry and profundity of its beleaguered protagonists.

From the nonporous stylings of Gay Talese through Watergate and into the 21st Century, supporters of the New York Times held it in the kind of esteem reserved for just a few institutions the world over. Its detractors, however, point to sloppy journalism in the early part of this century that all but endorsed Bush's Iraq campaign, while one of its journalists practiced blatant plagiarism that went undetected by its editors. We get a glimpse into a world where the perceived certainty of the behemoth being too big to fail and having money to burn is replaced, in the space of 18 months, by a floundering, sinking monolith. Such profligacy looks, at worst, naive now. Who knew that advertising was so important and who could have foreseen the internet annexing unloved fixtures like the classifieds? Like the music industry, nobody saw it coming, or saw it coming so quickly. It now feels like a bygone age.

Andrew Rossi's film presents the case for those that defend The Gray Lady's quality investigative journalism - thorough, historic, trusted - against young new media slingers who say the institution has wielded too much power for too long and looks like a dead dinosaur walking. Perhaps the most memorable exchange in the film is between Vice magazine co-founder Shane Smith, whose irreverent publication has got into bed with CNN in order to expose its deteriorating audience to hip, provocative reportage, and the indomitable David Carr, who survived cocaine addiction and single parenthood on welfare to become one of the archaic organ's undisputed stars.

In a meeting discussing The Vice Guide to Liberia which aired on CNN, Smith notes that he's a regular guy rather than a journalist though he has unearthed the unpalatable truth most established media won't touch in the form of tasteful vignettes about cannibalism and people shitting on the beach. “And the New York Times, meanwhile, is writing about surfing, and I'm sitting there going like, ‘You know what? I'm not going to talk about surfing, I'm going to talk about cannibalism, because that fucks me up."

“Just a sec, time out," interrupts Carr. “Before you ever went there, we've had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide. Just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn't give you the right to insult what we do. So continue..."

Carr, with his turbulent past, is an interesting focus. Now a serious journalist, trusty old war horse and formidable character, he knows shorthand and dismisses the succinct snippet soundbite culture of Twitter, before reluctantly embracing it. And while like all good documentary films that present the information and allow you to draw your own conclusions, it's difficult not to develop an attachment to Carr, who is intelligently fierce, a curmudgeon with compassion and a walking testament to the power of the 12-steps programme. In other words, a bad guy made good, and one with such professional expertise that it makes the prospect of him being turfed back into uncertainty a sobering one.

From inside the newsroom, the film challenges the assumption that old news will inevitably be superseded by a multitude of digital outlets, especially when you consider many of the newswires – like Gawker - aggregate stories from the likes of the Times to drive traffic. Without the New York Times where would the stories come from? Wikileaks is one answer, though it eschews objectivity for user ‘democracy'. The filmmakers skilfully draws symmetry between the monumental decision taken in 1971 to publish the Pentagon Papers (thus bucking a tradition of supporting the incumbent administration) to the recent forging of an unprecedented relationship with Julian Assange. The ensuing bleating about anti-patriotism was inevitable, though the more profoundly worrying seismic shift away from originating news to being merely a vessel reliant on outside sources, is duly noted.

How print media might survive is anyone's guess, though Rupert Murdoch's proclamation that the iPad is the future is not unanimously shared or welcomed. In fact Apple is treated in this film with the same disdain - the idea that Steve Jobs saved the music industry is quite rightly poo-pooed. If there's a problem with Page One (and it's a small one) it's that it appears after the incendiary events that took place this summer involving News Corp. The controversies involving the bankruptcy of the Tribune media company discussed in the film look like child's play compared with the far more serious revelations that have damaged Murdoch's empire over the past few months. It is ironic that like a newspaper in a digital age, the film finds itself behind on events before it has even hit the stands. “There is a growing sense of how much it would matter if we weren't here anymore," executive editor Bill Keller tells the camera, having endured the most tumultuous period in the papers' 160-year history as chief. Two weeks later he stands down.

Page One: Inside the New York Times is in UK cinemas on the 23 September.