Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Gray Lady Down But Not Out



PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES

Newspapers are facing what appears to be death by a thousand cuts.  You have loss of advertisers.  You have a diminishing number of readers.  You have intense competition from online sources of news.  You have entities such as FOX News and MSNBC, which have a veneer of news sources when they veer close to if not overtake the thin line of impartiality to be partisan attack machines for the right and left respectively. 

Of course, The New York Times, the newspaper of record, has been accused of being a far-left organization by various right-wing grandees, but even they site the Times when they wish to sound authoritative.   Page One: Inside the New York Times covers a year in the life of an organization that is trying to stay alive as so many other newspapers start falling due to declining revenues and readers.  Andrew Rossi's documentary, however, is more than just about the inner workings of a major news organization, but an exploration of how news itself (and more importantly, who delivers it) is vital to the survival of a thriving democracy such as ours.

Page One chronicles 2008, which proved to be a most interesting year in the Media Desk (the department that covers the media itself).  The primary story is the release by Wikileaks of confidential messages from governments to each other.  There is debate between getting the story first and getting the story right. 

This is crystallized by the release of a video showing American armed forces firing on journalists in Iraq.  At first, the edited film appears to show the group to be disarmed and the attack a blatant assault on unarmed civilians.  As the Media Desk begins to look at the longer, unedited video, it becomes evident that the situation was more chaotic than first thought, and that in the fog of war what appears self-evident may be more complex.  The question then becomes one of how to present the truth without rushing to judgment.

The Times doesn't shy from addressing some of its own embarrassments in Page One.  There is the Jason Blair scandal (where it is discovered that the rising reporter was in essence making it up as he went along), or the faulty reporting from Judith Miller in the build-up to the Iraq Intervention.  Page One also goes into the continuing downgrade at the Times: a particularly sad moment is when the Times' economic woes force it to lay off employees, including long-time staff.  Seeing them talk about how long they'd been there, and in one case cry when their surviving staff members give them a respectable send-off, is hard to watch (especially now when the nation, like the Times, is going through tough economic times). 

However, Page One thrives when the Media Desk vigorously defends itself (and the Times) against the very idea that the New York Times itself will disappear.  Media columnist David Carr (as cantankerous but insightful old-school journalist if ever there was one...despite his previous troubles with drugs which he is open about) won't stand for people suggesting that the Times is bordering on irrelevance, in particular at the various debates he participates with. 

One highlight is when he faces against DailyKos impresario Markos Moulitsas.  Moulitsas is open about the fact that he is not a journalist yet doesn't seem disturbed by the fact that DailyKos is used as a news source.  I digress to say that one can make the case that FOX and MSNBC could also be both news sources and advocacy centers (although I believe both networks have legitimate journalists who do manage to get actual news to their audiences).  Carr, as combative as ever, won't accept that the Times will ever be replaced by sources like DailyKos, but he also understands that New Media will be a vital outlet and source.  This is why he isn't too surprised to see CNN join forces with Vice Magazine.  When interviewing the staff at Vice, the older Carr at one point takes the Gen X editors to task for being quick to dismiss/ridicule more established news sources like CNN or the Times.

On a personal note, it's moments like these that endear Carr to me (and I imagine to viewers of Page One).   This is a man who loves journalism but knows that organizations like the Times must adapt to the changing world or truly face being left behind.  We see this with Brian Stelter, a man who started out writing for his own news blog but who was picked up by the Times and now is an insider at one of the most prestigious news outlets in the world.

Page One goes beyond showing the internal workings of the New York Times, but also goes to a central question: will all newspapers, including one that is seen as the newspaper of record, go by the wayside?  Page One, if it makes any arguments, is that newspapers will face hard times (a section of Page One chronicles the bankruptcy of the Tribune newspaper chain, brought about by owners more interested in making money than reporting news).  However, there will always be a need for news sources that make an effort to report 'all the news that fit to print', especially for an informed citizenry to keep the freedoms so hard-fought.

In a curious way, while Page One gives time to the importance of the Times when the Pentagon Papers were leaked to them, it doesn't make as strong a connection between the Pentagon Papers and the Wikileaks information dump.  Wouldn't it be similar in that secret government papers were given to the public?  Well, the Pentagon Papers were released to a news source that went out across the nation, while Wikileaks was put out direct to the public.  In a curious note, however, the second dump of information was done in a joint effort between Wikileaks as well as three dominant newspapers/magazines (the New York Times, the Guardian in London, and Germany's Der Spiegel).  It is a recognition from both sides that news outlets and the New Media of online sources need each other and can work together.

Page One is a fascinating documentary about the media and in particular one major, respected organization fighting to stay alive.  What I found fascinating was that the people at the New York Times weren't these wild-eyed radicals so often portrayed by right-wingers or old out-of-touch elitist the online journalist/activists dismiss them as.  Instead, they appear to be decent, hard-working people who want to give people legitimate information so that, to coin a phrase, "they report, you decide".

Page One is more than worth the hour and a half it takes.  An excellent insider's view of a newspaper at a crossroads.  I reported, I decided.

DECISION: B+

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