Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Page One: Inside The New York Times

"All the News That's Fit to...uh..."
"See Ya Later, Aggregator"

Andrew Rossi's documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times is a result of the filmmakers being given a year's access to The Gray Lady (specifically their Media section) during a tumultuous year of financial, source and identity crisis—as the institution deals with the continued loss of income from classified advertising, due to competing internet resources, the Wikileaks releases, and their defense of the print medium in a world of internet news-watchers and writers.  Those "aggregators" see themselves as the Future in the same way that they see Today as always being Tomorrow.  

What happens if/when The New York Times goes out of business and stops being a critical investigator of news, and leaves the world to the so-called aggregators who merely have the skills of editorial writers?*  Who will take the PR-machine of...the world and do the fact-checking?  Who will call "bullshit" on the bullshit?

One could look at this as the evolution of an old-school manufacturer in the midst of technology advancement—like watching the "record" industry flailing in the midst of digital formats and peer-to-peer file sharing, the "buggy-whip" syndrome—were it not that the internet equivalent of such news interpreters as The New York Times were doing something quite different and not similar at all.  There is a big difference between "cut-and-paste" information dissemination and critical-thinking journalism.  The latter is far more chancey, as any divergence from the "group-think" of established governmental and corporate positions is considered hostility, followed by the inevitable push-back, and that always involves lawsuits and Big Money, the very thing that is being undercut by the competing news sources.  The aggregators are in even less of a position to fight such battles, and are subject to being merely megaphones for the press releases and "packages" created by Big Government and Big Business to sell their best face to The Public.

Who, then, will be the investigators and journalists to read between the lines of the "Official" record and deliver it to the people who need it, especially in a world where "fluff" pieces, celebrity gossip and "bat-boy" stories are the ones to generate the most "hits" (what was called "impressions" in the old-school advertising circles, as in the number of people who actually scanned it).  Who will ask the necessary questions beyond "Hey, what is LeeAnn Rhimes is wearing on the red carpet?" or topics like (choosing from MSN's front-page right now) "Injured woman ate bugs, berries" (Thanks, Today Show!!). 

This is all "background" to the day-to-day wanderings, conference calls and "consults" for the staff at Media, as they they are faced with their own relevency (an expose of the Tribune Corporation, exposing bottom line policies while the execs run around like Bacchus, which garners a threatened lawsuit) and irrelevency (Wikileaks uploads to YouTube footage of a Baghdad air-strike that kills two Reuters reporters, rather than releasing it to any news organizations).  The results are telling in the importance of analysis in the two stories, whether it's corporation trying to hide their activites, or an advocacy group trying to "spin" the story the way they like.  At the same time, the culture of the paper is going through a critical self-analysis as the recent scandals of falsified stories and uncritical parroting of the governmental claims leading up to the Iraq War weigh heavily on the entire newspaper, as the staff try to ensure that they practice the very actions they claim to represent.

Heady stuff that will certainly resonate within the journalistic culture, but may not "play" to the movie-going public as entertainment value.  My favorite moment of the film happens when David Carr, a curmudgeonly mountebank of a Media writer for The Times counters an aggregator's claims of "The New Vision" by holding up a print-out of his site's lay-out, then holds up a second paper, cut-up and rersembling the flimsiest of Swiss cheeses—"This is what your site is going to look like without The New York Times."  But, Rossi works overtime providing context and facts for the events going on inside the newspaper's hall-ways and cubicles, comparing the "old school" journalism (with clips of an Omnibus segment from the 50's hosted by Alistair Cooke) to the new world of electronic media and Twitter.

It will be interesting over time to see what happens to the NY Times (and as with the Omnibus segment to this doc) to see what will be a next film on the subject, holding the same fascination of compare and contrast contained in Michael Apted's Up films.

* I can't tell you—as someone who reads film reviews—how frustrating it is to see the same names pop up in movie reviews from various sources (and usually in the aggregators of news-sites and—often on the "Movie feed" of this very blog) written by folks who don't understand film or the machinations of the English language.  I make my share of mistakes (and grieve over them and correct them when seen) but nothing compares to some of these "pool" stories that pop up incessantly.  If these are showing up in something so menial as film reviews, what worse sins are showing up in the news sections?  In the words of Marvin Gaye : "...Makes ya wanna holler."

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