Filmmaker Andrew Rossi must be thanking his lucky stars that David Carr makes for such an entertaining screen character. The ex-crackhead, single dad, New York Times media writer is a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed truth-teller who grills his sources with the ferocity of a jaded skeptic who’s seen it all and isn’t impressed by any of it. He rhetorically lays waste to arrogant members of the “new media” and verbally bitch slaps anyone who badmouths the journalistic ethics and dedication of his Gray Lady employer (an exchange with a gonzo reporter from the online Vice magazine is particularly amusing).
But Rossi’s treatment of hard-boiled Carr and his fellow New York Times colleagues is one of the reasons Page One is far more entertaining than it is enlightening. Treating Carr like a colorful celebrity, this energetic and surprisingly dramatic documentary indulges in more than a little mythologizing, depicting the Times as a heroic institution that casts light in the darkest corners of corporate and government behavior. And there’s a fair amount of truth to that claim.
Given unprecedented access to the Times and its staff for a full year, Page One provides a fascinating eyewitness account of Tim Arango, Andrew Ross Sorkin, Bill Keller and, in particular, media reporters David Carr, Brian Stelter and Bruce Headlam in their day-to-day efforts to corral the news. Rossi bears witness to the 2008 stock market crash, troop withdrawals from Iraq, the WikiLeaks controversy, and Carr’s stunning expose of the perverse corporate culture that infected the Tribune Company after its acquisition by Sam Zell.
And each topic is as informative as it is riveting. Despite its reliance on talking heads and footage of writers working at desks, Page One never bores. Carr, especially, is an unquestionably compelling personality, embodying the hard-nosed craft and integrity we like to associate with our muckraking newspaper heroes.
By focusing the lion’s share of his coverage on the Times’ media desk, Rossi also creates a clever echo chamber of meta-inspection that covers what is happening, how we talk about what is happening, who consumes the information about what is happening, and how they get that information.
But along with the insider-ish nature of this approach, Rossi, in a bit of unintentional irony, neglects to dig in the way a good reporter should. The Times’ major lapses in honesty and veracity — courtesy of Jayson Blair and Judith Miller — are quickly passed over as unfortunate exceptions rather than profound failures of oversight. Similarly, Page One never once questions the racial and socio-economic make-up of the New York Times’ staff and how that might guide its views on what is newsworthy.
Instead, the paper is depicted as the last bastion of journalistic excellence and free speech in world slowly becoming dominated by Gawker, Beaster and TMZ. The newspaper’s financial challenges in the emerging digital landscape and the impact of sites like Huffington Post, which leech off content papers like the Times pay good money to generate, are portrayed as threats to the economic stability and traditional values of journalism.
Page One asks what the role of a paper like the New York Times is in a functioning democracy. There is little doubt that it has become a uniquely important institution in American society, setting the pace and bar for most journalistic efforts. It boggles the mind to consider the overall quality and expansiveness of its daily reporting. Nevertheless, Rossi shouldn’t give the Gray Lady a free pass when it comes to her failures, weaknesses and mistakes. Page One warns what might be lost if it, and papers like it, ceased to exist, but it never delves into the subject with any depth or nuance. The loss of a legitimate voice is simply assumed, not examined.
Rossi, above all others, should have realized that the best way to honor a newspaper like the New York Times is to apply the same relentless and uncomfortable investigation of truth the paper purports to bring to its own stories.
Showing at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.