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Eleanor Ringel Cater

‘Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times’ questions the future of the daily paper

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

About the only thing lacking in this heavily cosmetic-ized “insider” look at the great Gray Lady is a pair of breast implants.

Maybe that’s because there are so few women featured in the movie (though, to be fair, both females at the daily morning power meeting opted out of being interviewed).

Not that it matters much. “Front Page: A Year Inside The New York Times” is shameless hagiography poorly disguised as a we-can-take-it/warts-and-all documentary.

To begin with, you must accept the notion that the Times is something sacred: the Valhalla of print, the Light beside the Golden Shore.

Never mind that it missed the biggest story of the last half of the 20th Century. A little thing called Watergate…

That said, I am, pretty much, a Times fan. I read and admire it. One of my oldest pals works there in a Big Deal position. For all I know, she may have been one of the two women at the 10:30 meeting who declined filmmaker Andrew Rossi’s request for access.

At any rate, “Page One” is very, very lucky in that it has a lynchpin the camera loves. He’s the excellent journalist David Carr. A reformed crack addict and single dad, well into his 50s, Carr hardly fits the profile of the typical Timesman (or woman). However, he does put a perfect face on the paper — a sleeves-rolled-up, gnarly, cantankerous, deep-digging, intelligent and very quick-with-the-quip type who summons up “The Front Page” more than the Style section.

Apparently, the Times knows his intrinsic worth, too. We see Carr doggedly tracking down a story —the dirty doings at the Tribune Company newly purchased by Sam Zell. Apparently a very different creature from the Sulzbergers or the Gelbs in Times Square, Zell behaves like a thug and a pig, making ugly anti-women remarks at meetings and ruthlessly cutting staff with a whimsical relish typically granted depraved Roman Emperors.

I’m not saying Zell isn’t a nasty bit of business — as, reportedly, was the deadly dumb-bunny from radio appointed to replace him. Thanks, in part, to Carr’s diligence, the second-rung hooligan was forced out a few short weeks after the Times story appeared.

Anyway, the profound and cleverly profane Carr makes an extraordinary frontman and one assumes that’s why he so often represents the Times at any and all newspaper symposiums (Last week, he appeared with Bill Maher on HBO). Just hearing him tell off some blog-headed pup is satisfying, even if you never worked for a newspaper in your life.

But “Page One” somehow manages to skim over some equally ugly stuff committed within its own hallowed halls.

For instance, we’re told about a tense time when 100 employees must be cut.

And who are they? Well, in two cases, they are a pair of heart-broken overweight white women, one who’d been there 32 years as deputy editor of the obits page (hardly small potatoes at the Times) and the other a 20-something-year veteran. It’s achingly obvious that both have dedicated their lives to their jobs.

One of them asks in a mouse’s voice whether she should use the freight elevator to clean out her desk or is it “okay” if she uses the regular passenger elevator.

(Personal Aside, and Pure Opinion: at the Major Metropolitan Monopoly Paper in Atlanta, a similar harvesting took place; everyone over 55 was herded into the elevators and sent next door to a room in CNN for an “upbeat” announcement of their death warrants; again, this is opinion, not fact…it may have been just a coincidence…)

Somewhere at the heart of all this adoration (The Times may be flawed, but she’s still a fine lady), is a truly important question: can print — or legacy media as newspapers are called here — survive?

To Rossi’s credit, the assumption is that they SHOULD survive and COULD survive in one form or another. But there’s also the sense that, if you had to choose, say, between throwing the Times out of a lifeboat or our own Major Metropolitan Monopoly Paper, well…. The Pet of the Week would be pretty waterlogged.

“Page One” makes a claim for the Times’ everlasting light by citing its publishing the Pentagon Papers and, in an interesting bit of self-examination, the recent Wikileaks, um, leaks. No argument here. Except, well, I kept thinking, is this inside baseball? Does the non-journalist truly care about some of the things “Page One” wallows in?

I want to remind you; I’m looking at “Page One” as a movie reviewer, not as a social or media critic. You may very much agree with what it puts forth, be it dire warning or unshakable self-love.

I just know there is something very off here, as if Carr’s magnetism manages to distract us from the rest of the story. True, a few other members of the Times media beat are highlighted. But I really don’t care that one guy, apparently a real “catch,” (as in recruit from the wired generation), blogged off 90 pounds over the course of a year.

A few years ago, “The Daily Show” dropped by the Times, which had every reason to believe that a like-minded liberal program would play fair and, if you play fair, you have to recognize what a mighty force for good newspapers in general — and the Times in particular — are. I can’t remember all the disastrously snarky stuff “The Daily Show” pulled, but this one remains: dangling the front page in front of someone powerful, he asks, “What on this page happened TODAY???”

So, what is the role of the daily paper today? It’s a good question and I still don’t know. But I do know this: as the film preened and poked around, something in me kept shouting, Stop Press.

Or maybe just, Stop.

Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.


1 Comment

  1. lonnfogel July 9, 2011 12:50 pm

    An interesting little documentary. Interesting, some insights, but incomplete and flawed. We also noted the lack of women. The topic deserves much more than a 90-minute documentary. What a difference a decade has made in the news business. It’s time for Google’s close-up, Mr. DeMille.Report


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