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The greatest challenge facing The New York Times is how deeply to partner with WikiLeaks. No, wait, it’s getting Andrew Ross Sorkin and Tim Arango to play nice on the tick-tock of the Comcast-NBC merger. Or maybe it’s how deep to go on an exposé of the shenanigans at the Tribune Company. Buyouts? Twitter? Arianna Huffington and her band of “cee-tee-zhen journalists?”
As Bill Keller, the outgoing executive editor, reminds us late in Page One: Inside The New York Times, the Grey Lady is a general-interest newspaper. This much-buzzed peek inside that vaunted newsroom high above Eighth Avenue is, however, quite scatterbrained. Not that the movie lacks for interesting threads. Like the Times itself, Page One opens with an array of narratives—personal, financial, scandalous—but as with a flashy aggregator, you never get what comes after the jump.
If one story is more fleshed out than the rest, it’s the journey of David Carr. A former editor of Washington City Paper, Carr spent the early part of his career lobbing bombs at the establishment; now that he’s part of it, he defends the paper with “an immigrant’s zeal.”
This gusto is most visible when Carr confronts some of those young, Web-savvy interlocutors who made their bones badmouthing old-school journalism. “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,” he says to a roomful of those nogoodniks from Vice magazine. Later on, scolding DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas for fixating on the sins of Judith Miller, Carr mocks the blogger’s vision of a world where the news is driven by Facebook and Twitter updates. One sympathizes with Carr here. Must the entire paper be damned years after it disowned the mistakes of one of its own? Myopic little twits.
Actually, Twitter is pretty important, particularly for Carr’s colleague and co-star Brian Stelter. Tweet, the 25-year-old Stelter tells a roomful of 21-year-old students, or get out of the game. At his desk, during phone calls, at a barbecue, Stelter is rarely seen not hunched over some device popping off 140-character thoughts. But that, save a few glimpses of Carr’s past life as described in his 2008 memoir The Night of the Gun, is as deep as Andrew Rossi is willing to go.
Page One jumps around from headline to headline, never pausing to write its own nut graf. The Times is important, but we know that already. The news industry is “changing,” but to what end? Spot interviews with Gay Talese are a nice throwback to the bygone era the dapper scribe recounted in The Kingdom and the Power, but just as quickly we see the modern Times rebounding from Miller and Jayson Blair, continuing to modernize, and racking up more Pulitzers amid, as Keller called it in an exit interview with Esquire, “one motherfucker of a recession.” It plays like a scattershot puff piece—all lede, no narrative. Rossi has tried to capture the heady essence of The New York Times but with all the insight of a Huffington Post vertical.
Still, or maybe to that end, the personalities are all winning: Stelter is plucky and modern; Carr is grizzled but avuncular; Arango earnestly volunteers to join the Baghdad bureau; and media editor Bruce Headlam might be the funniest on-screen editor since Lou Grant. (In a vignette about coverage of a trip by President Obama to Buffalo, N.Y., Headlam reminds the desk that the last president to “make news” in that city got shot, though the reference is omitted from the resulting article.)
If Rossi provides just one conclusion, it’s that yes, even in this age of buyouts and synergy, working for The New York Times is still the apex of this inky business. But the other issues the film leans at remain murky. In what form will daily broadsheet journalism endure? Can aggregation replace a true front page? Is Carr afraid of anything (besides Robo-Stelter)? Unlike the paper it seeks to encapsulate, Page One asks too many questions it’s unable to answer.