“Page One,” a new documentary about a year in the life of the New York Times directed by Andrew Rossi, is showing at the sleek new Lincoln Center theatre on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for a mere $13. While not openly partisan or even political (there were no Obama stickers spotted on desks, no rants about the paper’s myriad conservative critics), “Page One,” which captures in semi-compellingif scatter-shot fashion a year or so in the life of the Times’s media desk, fits snugly in to the Upper West Side mentality of entitled liberalism.
It’s a running conversation running over with angst, as Times reporters tackle stories about new media while simultaneously pondering the paper’s own place in the rearranged cosmos, as the paper’s very reason for being seems under attack in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and liberal news aggregators like the Huffington Post stealing audience.
(Participant Media, a progressive film company which had a hand in distributing and publicizing the documentary, was the subject of favorable coverage from the Times before the paper’s business involvement, and of sympathetic coverage afterward, a disclosure squeezed into a late paragraph.)
The stars of "Page One" include young hot-shot blogger turned reporter Brian Stelter; Tim Arango, now Baghdad bureau chief; desk editor Bruce Headlam; and the documentary’s undisputed headliner David Carr, the old man of the corps, a recovered addict who wrote a biography about his struggle from single dad on welfare to become lead media reporter for the Times.
Carr, who is both fiercely protective of the Times (most entertainingly in a spat with the punkish publishers of Vibe magazine) and cynical about the ways of media and life, comes off as a liberated spirit, talking freely about his drug bust in Minneapolis, caught in a bar bathroom with “a film cannister of coke.”
It may not be an unrelated fact that Carr, having seen all sides of life (“a textured life,” he calls it) is virtually alone among the paper’s reporters for showing the occasional empathy for the media’s conservative critics. Although his piquant remark on the June 24 edition of “Real Time with Bill Maher” won’t help that reputation: "If it's Kansas, Missouri, no big deal. You know, that's the dance of the low-sloping foreheads. The middle places, right? [pause] Did I just say that aloud?" Carr later apologized on his Twitter feed.
At first confounded by Twitter (at a backyard party he half-jokingly threatens to toss Stelter's device over a fence), Carr marvels at his younger colleague's natural ability to swim in the new media mainstream and said, deadpan, “I still can’t get over the feeling that Brian Stelter was a robot assembled in the basement of The New York Times to come and destroy me.”
Rossi’s unobtrusive fly-on-the-wall captures a genuine feel of journalistic back and forth chewing over the merits of a story, as in covering the paper’s decision not to follow NBC Nightly News who “announced” the official Pentagon official withdrawal of troops from Iraq in August 2010,. The paper's media and political reporters agonized over whether this was news or administration hype, eventually deciding to hold off coverage (it turned out the Pentagon had done no such thing).
But the pall of liberal conventional wisdom kept the documentary within safe parameters for its intended urban liberal audience. In my estimation, not a single right-of-center critic or commentator appeared, although the film included sit-down interviews with several Times-supporting talking heads. The roll includes veteran liberal investigative journalists Gay Talese (author of a 1969 book on the Times, “The Kingdom and the Power,”) and Washington Post Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein. Daniel Ellsberg, infamous leaker of the Pentagon Papers, also appears, as does Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the far-left magazine The Nation. A clip from a “death-of-media” conference featured criticism of the media from Markos Moulitsas, founder of the left-wing blog Daily Kos.
When Rossi does reach back to dig up criticism of the paper, it comes under approved liberal headings: Judy Miller’s overly credulous reporting on Iraq weapons of mass destruction, as well as serial fabricator Jayson Blair. But Rossi left out conservative controversies, like the paper’s Duke lacrosse coverage, John McCain’s alleged “affair.” Meanwhile, the paper’s irresponsible, ideologically motivated wrecking of two anti-terrorist programs in 2006 were portrayed as the Times coming under unfair attack, with no conservative talking heads to provide criticism besides shots of protesters outside the Times old headquarters in midtown Manhattan.