This documentary, my first Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) film of the year (reviews of more coming soon!) covers a lot of ground — everything from WikiLeaks to the sex scandal with Sam Zell, the previous business owner of the Tribune, who, in one clip, argues that newspapers ought to consider offering porn in order to increase sales (great idea, Sam! NOT!) — and this wide range of topics was, in my opinion, the sign of a lack of focus and organization to the film overall. That said, despite the fact it’s sort of all over the place, this movie is absolutely fascinating and completely engaging, thanks in large part to its overall theme and its star player, New York Times media columnist David Carr. Those are the two elements I’ll be focusing on in this review.
The theme of Page One is that, despite the increase in news blogs and other technology, we still desperately need traditional newspapers. Maybe not in print, but fully financed and supported, read, and respected. In that regard, the movie was completely preaching to the choir for me — not only am I married to a newspaper reporter myself, but I’m also a research librarian, frequently tasked with the daunting, difficult chore of weeding out all the garbage one finds online to find the few trustworthy, dependable sources. The quest for accurate information is getting harder and harder as the web gets bigger and everybody with a WordPress account decides their opinions are the ones the world needs to hear about (ha ha, get it? I kill me!).
More importantly, though, people need to realize that solid, vetted reporting costs money. It costs money and it’s worth paying for. Listen up.
For the most part, the arguments made in this film, which features interviews with a variety of reporters and writers, were ones I’ve heard a million times before — arguments for traditional newspapers involving concepts like fact-checking, ethical codes, and a striving for bias-free presentation of facts (as opposed to, the film points out, the plainly biased “reporting” at HuffPo and WikiLeaks — it has a lengthy segment about a film clip released by WikiLeaks, for example, that was edited heavily to present their point-of-view. The New York Times has published a lot of WikiLeaks content, but it vets it all stringently itself before printing, considering Assange to be a “source,” not a “journalist” himself).
But there were a few new ideas (to me, anyway) included here as well. One of the ones that really struck me was the question: if all we have are news bloggers — amateur or even professional journalists predominantly writing singly or for news groups that are giving that information away freely (and thus, not making any significant money off it) — who goes overseas to cover wars? Who pays for that? Who volunteers to do it? Who creates the smooth transition between one reporter’s tour overseas and the next’s?
Along the same lines: how do you cover the President of the United States on the cheap? Who pays for all those flights to follow him around? All those hotel rooms?
On a less dramatic, but equally important scale, who covers all those insanely boring city government meetings and tells us about the one important nugget that came out of three hours of tedious torture? I mean, according to my husband, it’s already hard enough to get “real” reporters to those meetings because newspapers are so understaffed nowadays due to cut-backs and lay-offs. And when governments, local or national, get to do whatever they want to do without anybody paying attention and telling everybody else what’s going on, BAD SHIT HAPPENS.
David Carr, a long-time reporter and columnist at the Times, stood out in this film not only as a man with an interesting history (he was a cocaine addict for most of his young adult life, and even served time in prison for possession — what he describes as his “textured” youth), but also because he’s smart, funny, and holds no punches when it comes to defending his profession.
For example, in a delightful clip from an episode of Intelligence Squared, Michael Wolff from the web site Newser argued that we don’t need newspapers anymore because sites like his are taking care of the work and offering it to people for free. Brilliantly, Carr responded by holding up a print-out of Newser’s home page, covered in icons representing about 20 stories. Then he held up another copy of the same thing, this time with all the pieces on the page taken from newspapers like the Times cut out — only about two stories remained on a page now full of holes (pretty striking visual aid, if you ask me).
Carr’s point: Yeah, YOU can do this for no charge because WE’RE the ones doing all the work! This is something a lot of news consumers take for granted these days — because they CAN get information for free, they think they OUGHT to get information for free (something true in the library world as well, with the increasing availability of online journals and books). But there’s no such thing as a news story that is truly free. The question is, will people figure that out before newspapers die? Do we really want to reduce the information we’re able to access to two stories on a site like Newser, written by people with no real oversight, training, or journalistic ethics?
So, what’s the future? Sites like ProPublica, which does some of its own investigative reporting and also frequently joins forces with mainstream, “legacy” media sources like the Times and CNN to cover larger stories, is one direction we might be heading in — a hybrid model that combines the new ideas of the more “citizen journalism” approach (though most ProPublica reporters are ex-newspaper editors and reporters) and technologies while also maintaining the ethics, methods, and vetting that are the backbone of traditional papers (though Carr would argue here that the Times is already blogging, Tweeting, and more — what the hell else do you want from it, people?).
Who knows — it’s a difficult question, and a challenging time; “a revolution, not a transition,” one reporter in the film says. All I know is that I fear living in a world where rookies are in charge of reporting the news. Reporters don’t always get it right, of course, and the film talks in some detail about the impact on public trust when reporters get it really, really wrong (Judith Miller, for example). But they still work harder, do more, and do it more carefully than bloggers.
The process by which a story makes it onto the front page of the Times is also described in the film, and it’s laboriousness, with editors from every department meeting twice a day to ask questions, check for reliability, double-check sources, and more, ought to be all the proof you need to that real reporting is a valuable public service in a way amateur reporting never will be. A front page Times story is vetted multiple times before it goes to print, by multiple people. It’s obviously still not fool-proof, but that doesn’t mean that lengthy vetting process is unnecessary.
We need newspapers. We need reporters. Without them, without someone keeping a diligent eye on things who’s trained to explain those things to the rest of us so we can stay informed too, we’re totally sunk as a nation and as a society. I believe it. You should believe it too.
When it’s over, you can subscribe to the New York Times here: http://nytimesathome.com/hd/142?MediaCode=W47AF&CMP=3847F. I hope you’ll want to.
Now, somebody go get me David Carr’s number. I need to buy that man a beer.
Director: Andrew Rossi