There are, it seems, three schools of thinking when it comes to the New York Times.
There is, of course, the conservative view, which is that the Times is a left-wing house organ.
And there's the view of most of the rest of America -- which is that the Times exemplifies what journalism should be and is the most important newspaper in the world. That's also the NYT's view.
And then there are those of us who work in the media in New York, who see the Times as a paper that is necessary but far from perfect -- but one that maintains a grandiose sense of its own importance.
You get a little bit of all three in Page One -- Inside the New York Times, a documentary (opening in limited release Friday, 6/17/11) that uses what has become, by default, America's most important print media outlet to tell the story of the collapse of print media in the Internet age.
Director Andrew Rossi actually uses the Times' media desk as his point of entry. He spends time with reporters Brian Stelter, Tim Arango, Richard Perez-Pena and David Carr, as they cover stories and confer with their editor, Bruce Headlam. Though we see the Times in snow, rain and sunshine, there's not exactly a linear feel to the story telling.
Instead, Rossi does some fairly standard fly-on-the-wall filming in the Times, watching Carr, Stelter and others as they pursue various stories -- from early Wikileaks releases to Carr's huge takeout on the collapse of Tribune Corp.
Rossi also uses the ongoing story of the collapse and closure of several major American daily newspapers -- and the forced layoffs and buyouts at the Times itself -- to look at what has happened to newspapers in general. The Times has survived and even found a way to thrive -- but it has not been immune to the shift in newspaper reading and news-consumption habits of the American public.
While other newspapers -- in Seattle, Denver and elsewhere -- have gone belly up, the Times is confident of its own survival. Its biggest cheerleader in that regard is Carr, a pointedly eccentric presence in the film who is seen, on several occasions, arguing for not only the newspaper's ability to grow and shine -- but in his belief that this is a journalistic necessity in order to make the world a better place.
Stelter and Arango seem slightly intimidated and inhibited by the presence of a camera watching them as they do their jobs (though Stelter's shlubby appearance seems to counter notions of stiffness at the Great Gray Lady). Carr is the only one of the Timesmen who seems not only willing but eager to be the star of the film.
With his hunched posture, screechy-scratchy voice and aggressive personality, he's ready for his close-up -- though the clarity of the digital image does him no favors. He's also more than happy to share his sordid past as a one-time crack addict and jailbird who became a single father on welfare -- before turning his life around and becoming a New York Times star. He's already outlined it in detail in a memoir; no point in being shy now.
But his belief in New York Times exceptionalism rings a little hollow when the film turns its focus on Jayson Blair, whose plagiarism and fiction-as-news follies gave the Times a black eye. Or when Rossi focuses on the war cheerleading of then-reporter Judith Miller, who happily piped "scoops" from unreliable sources on to the Times' front pages, casting the Times as the go-to medium for the Bush administration to justify its invasion of Iraq.
Meanwhile, one thing neither Rossi nor anyone else looks at is just how newspapers so egregiously missed the boat on the Internet. At one point, an observer notes that newspapers didn't know that websites like Monster.com or Craigslist would eat their lunch in terms of help-wanted and other kinds of want ads. But there's little discussion of how poorly most newspapers took to the web, how little understanding of who its audience is and what that audience still looks for in a newspaper.
Yes, you get lots of long, loving shots of the Times' toney new offices on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. And you get what looks like fairly stilted news meetings involving executive editor Bill Keller and his recently announced replacement, Jill Abramson. But you don't really get that "inside" look that the title promises.
Rather, it's not-quite-cinema verite footage of Carr and Stelter on the telephone or meeting with Headlam. Their awareness of the camera mitigates against unguarded moments.
Which doesn't mean that Page One isn't an interesting or watchable film. But it plays into the paper's own sense of self-mythologizing, even as it occasionally reveals its feet of clay.
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified Director Andrew Rossi as Alex Rossi.
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