Page One: Inside the New York Times

Last month, when Andrew Rossi’s documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times opened in New York, Michael Kinsley reviewed it in the New York Times. A veteran journalist, Kinsley is not a movie critic, but more importantly for the sake of his assignment, nor is he a Times insider. So it was with particular authority, and without a conflict of interest, that he could sum Rossi’s movie up as “a mess.”

Particular authority is of the essence here. There’s something in the spirit of the Times, as it were, that has allowed this sequence of events to occur: Taking so very seriously the task of reviewing a documentary about it is part of what makes the paper seem documentary-worthy to begin with. Kinsley’s right; the movie is a mess, and it isn’t a matter of partisanship to think that on some basic level untidiness just doesn’t suit the subject.

“It’s hardly breaking news that the newspaper business is in deep trouble,” some broadcaster says early on in Rossi’s obligatory, expository cable-news montage. So why should Page One presume that news worth repeating? Why, of course to reveal how the mighty Times, still America’s “newspaper of record,” has been coping with the trouble. And it should be instructive to review what happens when particular authority is particularly challenged — mostly by the Internet, with its revenue-siphoning, allegiance-shattering cacophony.

Having shrewdly looked in on the Times’ still-young Media Desk, but only managed to characterize it as an in-house abettor of hand-wringing and chin-stroking, Rossi soon finds himself scrambling for substantiation, and he’s all over the place. Reasonably enough, he posits a generational conflict between ornery old-school columnist David Carr, an equal-opportunity condescender and an oft-imitated newsroom type, and blogger-cum-reporter Brian Stelter, whom Carr imagines as a robot sent to destroy him. But glimpses of these men’s inner lives seem not so much considered as search-engine optimized: Yes, Carr was a crack addict, and yes, Stelter tweeted his diet and lost 90 pounds. Meanwhile the film can’t muster enough critical distance to comprehend something essential to its theme of particular authority and challenges thereto: that each generation has its own manner of entitlement.

This peculiar provincialism is abrasively self-propagating. Kinsley, in his Times review, seemed miffed that Rossi didn’t explain what Vice magazine is. But Kinsley should know what Vice magazine is, or at least not pretend he doesn’t just to seem scolding. Of course, the only evident reason that the founders of Vice appear in the film at all is so Carr can be seen scolding them.

Page One has too few scenes of news judgment articulated, whether it concerns war coverage, battles between media conglomerates, or executive editor Bill Keller’s succinct appraisal of public trust as a function of leaked government documents: “Wikileaks doesn’t need us; Daniel Ellsberg did.” (It seems worth noting that Keller’s hair appears to have grayed a lot during the time Rossi spent with him.)

There are other tactical errors. Rossi makes an insufficiently nuanced equation between discredited reporters Jayson Blair and Judith Miller, two reputation-tarnishing disseminators of false information with importantly different motives and consequences. And it might seem like due diligence trotting out Gay Talese to read from The Kingdom and the Power, his extraordinary 1969 book about the inner workings and outer influence of the Times, but in context it comes off as a miscalculation, showing this movie up for the comparatively sloppy exercise it is.

Rossi pays homage to what we can understand as traditional newsroom values — curiosity, conscientiousness, critical thinking — but his own attention span seems tellingly ruined. His film had three editors, and it’s hard to know whether it should have had only one or three more. Page One feels like and gives off about as much useful insight as an unruly, time-killing panel discussion at some preening journalism conference. (That is: not much.)

Journalists eat this stuff up, of course. You may notice that Page One is not the only movie playing this week, but here it is being reviewed. Simultaneity with the weird public spectacle of contrition from Rupert Murdoch does at least go to show that nonfiction films about media culture still can be vital and useful — and that it’s too bad Errol Morris’s Tabloid isn’t yet available at a theater near you.