Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times

MPAA (R) CNS/USCCB () Roger Ebert (3 Stars) Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -
USCCB review -
Roger Ebert's review - 
Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times (R rated for occasional language, directed and co-written by Andrew Rossi as well as Kate Novack) is a documentary about how the nation’s flagship newspaper, The New York Times, is seeking to cope with and respond effectively to the challenges posed by the “new media” of the internet. 

The challenges are plenty and many deal with revenue.  Why should companies buy ad space in the New York Times when they can have their own easily accessible websites on the web or advertise on countless other people’s web pages via services like Google?  Why should people pay the New York Times for a classified ad listing when they can post such ads for free on Craigslist?  Why should people pay for a subscription to the New York Times or buy a copy at a newsstand when they can (or could) read the New York Times (or their favorite columnists) for free on the web?  

One _could_ say, produce a product that’s simply incomparable in quality, limit free access and people will still buy it.  But there are other challenges.  Page One considered the phenomenon Wikileaks, noting that Wikileaks came on the scene by simply posting (on YouTube) a highly provocative, leaked classified video that it had received of a problematic U.S. combat operation in Iraq.  The NYT journalists noted several problems with the video, notably that two versions of the video were posted by Wikileaks on YouTube.  The first was the raw, unedited version (38 minutes long - so it presumably had to be cut-up into several 10-15 minute segments as per YouTube policy).  The second version was an “edited version” that was actually more provocative than the first, because it focused on the killing of a number of seemingly unarmed Iraqi men while editing out evidence present in the raw version that one of those men _may_ have been carrying an rocket-propelled grenade. 

The Wikileaks incident described above highlighted both the promise and the problems present in “citizen/activist journalism.”  (Indeed, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was asked in a phone interview shown in the documentary if he considered himself more of a "journalist" or more of an "actrivist.  He chose the "activist" label. “Citizen journalism” is prone to amateur mistakes while activists tend to seek to _actively_ portray a particular slant or point of view.  The editing out of the visual evidence that _one of a group of men_ killed in this attack _may_ have been carrying an RPG could have been an _amateur mistake_ or a conscious _activist_ decision to slant the story.  The incident could showcase the continued need for a professional journalistic class (or a “priesthood” as it were) to _mediate_ the raw data into coherent and honest reporting.  It was noted that some time later, when Wikileaks received a huge cache of classified U.S. documents, Wikileaks itself decided to go to the New York Times, The Guardian (of England) and Der Spiegel (of Germany) to ask for help in filtering the information in such a way that its contents could be released without directly endangering any American lives.  So even Wikileaks founder Julian Assange apparently understood the value of having a credible mediating agency like the New York Times filtering and organizing the data to produce a coherent and honest product.

However, the difficulties in maintaining the reputation of producing a coherent and honest product were highlighted in the case of NYT reporter Judy Miller, whose articles about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction during the months leading up to the Iraq War were seen as instrumental in mobilizing Congress and public opinion to support the war.  Judy Miller was depending on classified information that she was receiving from her intelligence sources.  The New York Times has since been roundly criticized for not exercising due diligence in making sure that she (and the Times) were not being scammed.  A particularly revolting scene in the documentary was a clip of then Vice-President Dick Cheney referring to Judy Miller’s articles _from the New York Times_ (a newspaper that’s normally anathema to the American Right) to justify the march to war: “There’s a report (even) in New York Times today ...” What I found so revolting about that segment is that Judy Miller was being fed her information by the same “pro war” faction within the U.S. intelligence community of which Dick Cheney was part.  (I’m not saying that Dick Cheney _ordered_ someone to leak cherry-picked intelligence to Judy Miller, but someone was doing so and this certainly this manipulated leaaders and public opinion to support the G.W. Bush Administration's call for war in Iraq).  The Judy Miller case serves as a painful example of how even the New York Times occasionally gets bamboozled, a reality that somewhat undermines  its “need for a journalistic priestly class” reason for its continued existence: Sure “amateurs” often get fooled but so does (occasionally) the New York Times.

The New York Times is also portrayed as seeking to make peace and even to partially coopt some of the new media phenomena by hiring younger, new media savy reporters like Brian Stelter (who began his writing career by running a highly successful blog) to its media desk department.  The Times would also deploy their highly articulate, if somewhat crochety and certainly more traditional media reporter David Carr to various conferences and public forums to defend the continued relevance of the New York Times.  In a particularly funny line in the film (which also shows up in its trailer), refering to the happily blogging and twittering Stetler, Carr notes that he has nightmares that “[Stelter] is actually a robot built in the basement of the New York Times for the purpose of destroying me.”  Carr, however, becomes the central figure in this documentary, tirelessly defending the Times and other traditional newspapers, noting in one conference that “internet aggregators” (sites which collect links to various stories) would have almost nothing to aggregate if not for the content porduced by those traditional news outlets.

The New York Times is portrayed as flirting with the possibility of moving towards an “NPR business model" perhaps seeking a number of foundations to help underline its mission.  It also is portrayed as anamored with the potential of eReaders like Apple’s iPad (note here, that I often read and _enjoy reading_ the New York Times through my Kindle that I received as a birthday present a couple of years ago from my dad).

Finally, the documentary makers give ample time to David Carr’s righteous disgust with rival Tribune Company chairman Sam Zell’s approach to seek to further “commercialize” traditional newspapers.  Sam Zell’s philosophy has been to respond to the current financial/existential challenges to traditional media by challenging his papers to “give the people what they want.”A clip shown in the documentary has Sam Zell even suggesting that perhaps newspapers “should include a porn section.”   The documentary makes ample note that a few years after taking over it was Sam Zell's Tribune Company (which owns among other newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times) that had to file for bankruptcy protection and not the New York Times.

So this documentary offers much to think about regarding the challenges facing traditional news outlets and asks the audience to contemplate a world without entities like the New York Times.  Ultimately Page One does not offer any clear solutions.  What it does do is show a managing staff at the New York Times aware of the stakes involved and with reasonably competence and openness to also the positive of this era seeking to make sure that the New York Times do not simply crash and die.  I’d like to add here, that if the New York Times would become a kind of  NPR in the future, I would certainly be willing to contribute to it if that ultimately ensures its survival.

<< NOTE - Do you like what you've been reading here?  If you do then consider giving a small donation to this Blog (sugg. $6 _non-recurring_) _every so often_ to continue/further its operation.  To donate just CLICK HERE.  Thank you! :-) >>

No comments:

Post a Comment