Here’s a fly-on-the-wall documentary about a major American newspaper trying to find its feet in the digital age. Over the course of a year, Andrew Rossi filmed in the offices of the New York Times; gaining unprecedented access to its inner workings and capturing it at a unique juncture where dailies played a grim race to see who went under first.
Season 5 of The Wire constantly springs to mind: it’s a lot of quick talking guys chewing the cud on the ethics of journalism and avoiding redundancy offers.
Along the way key threads emerge: the focus centres on the new media desk, and the debate about how print media can survive amidst hordes of online darlings that want to dance on its grave. These days, there are no more “stop the presses” moments – all news is broken online and carbon copy is used to relay it through features and updates for those on the wrong side of the digital divide.
The release of the Wikileak’s papers on the Iraq War is shown as a historical counterpoint to the Pentagon Papers: back then Daniel Ellsberg had to wait nearly 22 months before filing copy on the US administration’s deliberate misleading of the public during Vietnam. An existential fear of the future pervades at the paper and the hubris of the Times’ history looks like it stands in the way of change. To be fair, it’s not a total love in, and the reporting of Judith Miller (her that regurgitated bogus intelligence reports on WMD’s in the run up to the invasion of Iraq) and a number of plagiarists is laid at the door of institutional laziness.
Strong opposing personalities are used to tie any semblance of a narrative together. Carr is a hard-boiled hack, ex-drug fiend (as we are told repeatedly) and the total opposite of upstart blogger-turned-Times writer Brian Stelter. He defines the next generation of journalist, constantly Twittering his way through the day. In the end, even Carr learns to love Twitter, describing how it opens him up to a “wider collective voice, where the message is the medium.”
Carr’s reflections save the film; spoken with the poise of a beatnik poet he delivers some serious smack-downs to the wisdom of the new media world. When interviewing the founders of Vice magazine, his frustration with their peddling of titillation instead of reasoned coverage of Libya rolls off his tongue: “before you ever went there, we had reporters reporting on genocide after genocide; so just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and look at some poop, that doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do.”
There’s also an excellent side-ways look at how one real-estate magnate drove another daily into the ground – a worrying portraiture of the class of corporate lunatic that can seize the reigns of the press through the market. Apart from that, when it comes to solutions, it’s all Ipads and paywalls.
The film is annoying in parts, moving from talking heads and set up interviews to an ob-doc obsession with David Carr. There’s no underlying aesthetic or consistency of tone, camera shakes and poor framing abound . Was a year really spent filming this?[rating=2]