Friday, June 24, 2011

Old Media: Page One

At least when watching a documentary about the New York Times, you know you will not have to sit through a bunch of boring fact-checking scenes. While the Jayson Blair scandal is briefly acknowledged, there will be little on-screen stock-taking or soul-searching. However, the chronicle of the courtship and marriage of convenience between the Times and WikiLeaks is rather inadvertently revealing in Andrew Rossi’s Page One: Inside the New York Times, which opens today in Los Angeles.

Page essentially opens and closes with the Times running major WikiLeaks pieces. At first, they are scrambling to figure out who the subversive group is that recently posted a heavily edited youtube video purporting to show the American military killing journalists during a fire fight. The fact that the raw unedited footage largely contradicted the Leakers characterization is treated as merely an interesting sidebar in the “A-one” editorial meeting. That should all be tucked into one of the stories executive editor Bill Keller tells the staff. Of course, this would seem to undercut the entire story, but clearly the Times had already bought into the Leakers’ wider narrative.

David Carr ought to have some choice words to say about this. The f-bomb tossing Times media columnist clearly has a hair-trigger b.s. detector. Unlikely enough, the former junkie (as he will readily admit to just about anybody) emerges as the primary POV figure as we watch him covering issues on the margins of Page’s central questions: will new media kill off old media and we should we mourn its passing?

Well, that depends. Aside from the acerbic Carr, the Times staffers make it hard to care. Not to flay a dead horse, but the audience never witnesses any fact-checking and one uncorroborated source appears to be more than sufficient for the paper’s standards of reporting. Yet, the ease with which Keller and company slide into an alliance with the ideologically charged Leakers largely defines Rossi’s year at the financially troubled paper. As the Times starts publishing only slightly redacted Wiki document dumps, claiming they are just another source, Carr finally starts musing over the ethics of it all.

If media conferences and symposia are your idea of movie magic, than Page is the film you have been waiting for. Several arms also come perilously close to snapping as a result of strenuous back-patting. Structurally though, Page lacks any distinctive arc. It starts with the Times hemorrhaging readers and advertisers while its stock price languishes in the basement and that is pretty much where it ends as well. Even their collaboration with WikiLeaks lacks dramatic interest, since apparently nobody at the paper saw reason to object. Frankly, it is only during a round of layoffs that Page even suggests a whiff of conflict.

Though mostly dull and underwhelming cinema, Page has its moments of unintentional humor. As the paper takes flack for its unpopular new internet pay-wall, one editor rhetorically asks how people can expect them to provide their services for free. Maybe the complainers have been reading Times editorials. Surely, if the paper made all content available completely free of charge, the savings realized from forgoing collections would more than cover their operating costs. After all, is that not the foundation of Obamacare? Essentially an infomercial produced under insular circumstances, Page lacks drama and self-awareness. Safely skippable, it opens in the Los Angeles area today (6/24) at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 and Town Center 5, while expanding in New York to the Kew Gardens Cinema.