Rash Report: A film about the New York Times

  • Updated: July 1, 2011 - 9:31 PM

'Page One,' a new documentary, makes the case for old-school reporting in a new media world.

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Just in time for summer's biggest weekend, the latest superhero movie is out.

 Except this crusader fighting for truth, justice and the American way doesn't fly through the air in a crisp cape, but in a rubber band or plastic bag: It's a newspaper, in the compelling documentary "Page One: Inside the New York Times."

"Page One's" real-life Clark Kents and Peter Parkers appear pretty heroic, too, albeit still susceptible to professional and personal kryptonite. (I may be a bit biased, since the film focuses on Times media writers, two of whom I know personally.)

But in an ever-evolving media landscape that threatens the business model, and civic virtue, of mainstream media outlets that create the objective journalism others blog, post or Tweet, their work, at least, is valiant.

Andrew Rossi, the documentary's director, describes "Page One" as "trying to give viewers a front-row seat to the way that quality journalism is practiced in an institution that has a mandate to do boots-on-the-ground reporting and cover the world for its readers ... while also providing them with several stories that are being reported by these writers that elucidate all these disruptions taking place, chief among them the crisis taking place within the newspaper industry itself."

These disruptions -- what Rossi calls the "play within a play" -- show how new media is challenging older institutions like the Times, whose fragile future frames the film.

WikiLeaks is just one of these disruptions. After it posts a YouTube video of the U.S. military firing on a crowd in Iraq, reporter Brian Stelter deftly describes how organizations such as WikiLeaks are changing journalism, as well as government. This gets his story moved from the Business section to the front page (thus the name of the film).

Stelter embodies the blur between new and old media: At age 18, he anonymously started the influential industry blog tvnewser.com. After the Times wrote about the new media whiz kid in a front-page story, it hired him to write about the changes he represented.

WikiLeaks morphs from a subject into a source when it partners with the Times on its release of classified documents. The collaboration was "a demonstration of what newspapers do best," Rossi said.

"Sifting through troves of information, and giving it meaning, and creating blockbuster packages that run on the front page which really guide the national, and indeed, the global conversation."

Yet even Executive Editor Bill Keller realizes that unlike the Times' role in the Pentagon Papers, the equation has equalized, if not gone in the favor of figures like WikiLeaks' Julian Assange.

"WikiLeaks doesn't need us. Daniel Ellsberg did," he says in "Page One."

But Assange did need the Times -- to get the story out, but also for its professional and responsible editing, including redacting names of sources whose lives were at risk.

One of "Page One's" strongest subplots is about a story the Times decided not to write: Video of U.S. combat troops pulling out of Iraq. NBC News went with the story, complete with live footage of a military convoy.

But close consultation between the Times' media and national security correspondents determined it was a Pentagon photo-op more than a meaningful event, and the media editor, Bruce Headlam, spiked the story.

Other stories featured in "Page One" are the mega-media merger between Comcast and NBC Universal, and Apple unveiling its iPad. They respectively represent the dramatic deals and transformative technologies that threaten newspapers, as a world of ever-more apps and fewer ads help trigger a wave of layoffs that did not spare the Times.

These real and existential threats position mainstream media in an unaccustomed role: underdog. Playing foil are online aggregators that do little original reporting, but use newspapers as sources in their analysis, as well as to attract readers -- and revenue.

Defending what he deems the Times' "exceptionalism" is Minnesota native David Carr, who writes the newspaper's "Media Equation" column.

Carr is a "rock star," Rossi says, the kind of character a documentary depends on. "Others can make a movie about an idea and work back from that. The way I work is I like a human being that is linked to that idea."

And Carr is human, as detailed in "Night of the Gun," his memoir about his journey from drug addiction in Minneapolis to parental devotion in New Jersey.

Carr "becomes an unlikely and extraordinary avatar for the newspaper industry itself," Rossi said. "Someone who has struggled through adversity and reinvented himself."

Newspapers haven't completely reinvented, but they are evolving. The Times new metered pay model for its website has shown promising results, with more than 100,000 subscribers in its first month alone, according to Bloomberg News.

Most important, the public's confidence in newspapers has rebounded, at least a bit, according to a Gallup Poll released this week: 28 percent of Americans have a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in newspapers.

That's still low, but up from 2007's 22 percent figure, which was partly due to the Jayson Blair and Judith Miller fiascoes at the Times.

Although the story about the future of newspapers is still being written, "Page One" needed a dramatic dénouement.

"David would rib me and say 'you're so screwed -- you don't have an ending,'" Rossi recalled.

Then Carr provided one, with his relentless reporting on the business and behavioral hubris that plunged the Tribune Company, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, among other papers, into bankruptcy.

When Tribune execs push back against Carr's characterization, the Times shines.

"At the end of the film, the muscles of the institution still exist," Rossi said. "And they're employed to run a story that is not just about the bankruptcy, but that important civic assets have been lost as a result of the trashing of this company. It's a really important part of the film."

And every superhero needs muscles, right? Indeed, it's this institutional infrastructure, which when flexed helps citizens sort between cynical spin and fundamental facts, that comes across as heroic in "Page One."

"The New York Times," Rossi concluded, "is heroic in the same way that all news organizations that risk their bottom lines, and in some cases their [reporters'] lives, to do original reporting all around the world, are heroic."

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. Page One is now showing at the Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis.

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