These days, a college student professing an interest in journalism will be met with one of several responses.

Page One: Inside The New York Times

At the Michigan
Magnolia

One: “That’s a very … difficult career path right now, isn’t it?”

Two: “Well, that’s just peachy — hope your folks don’t charge rent when you move back in with them.”

Three: “Oh … sorry.”

But skepticism, sarcasm and pity aren’t the angle that “Page One: Inside The New York Times” takes. The subjects of this year-in-the-life-of-a-newsroom documentary try their darndest to show that, in the words of past Executive Editor Bill Keller, “Journalism is alive and well and feisty, especially at The New York Times.”

Part of this stark can-do attitude stems from the film’s focus on the Times’s Media Desk, which was formed in 2008 to analyze and cover media. Twitter, YouTube and “wiki”-anything are keywords in the language of new-school journalism, and the Media Desk staff members prove their fluency.

Lined up, the subjects of “Page One” are poster children for a precocious modern media: Brian Stelter, hired by the Times at 21 after the paper outed him as the creator of a major TV news blog. Tim Arango, a business writer who left for a stint in Iraq midway through filming. And David Carr, a crack addict-turned-Times man who’s not afraid to be tough with his sources — in one particularly memorable scene, Carr tells off a Vice founder who he feels has slighted the Times’s foreign coverage after he “put on a fucking safari helmet and looked at some poop” for a story on Liberia.

These guys are the heroes, tweeting and blogging their way into a changing news landscape. And the film’s best moments are their personal victories: Arango grinning as he climbs into a car bound for Fallujah, Stelter literally changing shape before our eyes (it’s revealed later that he lost 90 pounds through dieting during the course of filming). The genius of “Page One” is how it turns bylines into people.

The flipside is that the news aggregators and the opinionators masquerading as journalists are painted as villains. We snicker when Carr holds up a copy of a Newser screen shot to illustrate the aggregators’ dependence on mainstream media — he has cut out all the mainstream news links and the page droops over, flimsy and ridden with holes. And when Julian Assange asserts in an interview with Stelter that he is both an activist and a journalist, there’s an urge to slap him.

In a manner that doesn’t quite jive with the Times’s preference for journalistic objectivity, “Page One” seems to really want its newspaper protagonist to beat the odds. This subjectivity comes as no surprise. Participant Media, the film’s production company, is all about advocacy, pairing each of its movies with a social action campaign — for “Page One,” viewers are asked to “consider the source” of the news they consume (hardly a revolutionary concept). It’s ironic that a documentary about objective journalism, focusing on a paper that has historically been one of its main proponents, falls short of that ideal.

“Page One” ends abruptly. One minute the story of the Tribune Company’s bankruptcy unfolds, as Carr prods his sources and his editor cuts his article’s length. Then suddenly Carr’s at a conference calling the end of a “cyclical secular recession” for the publishing business, and Keller is standing on the stairs with the whole of his staff watching him announce Pulitzer winners and talk about how journalism today is feisty.

Wait, is it? What about Sam Zell and Randy Michaels, the Tribune ringleaders embroiled in allegations of sexual harassment? What about Assange and Newser? Judith Miller and Jayson Blair? YouTube, Twitter, layoffs, corporate acquisitions?

Whether purposely or not, this finale illustrates the big danger of subjective media. Sure, any journalistically inclined college students will leave the theater with an image of The New York Times bravely holding its own in this era of media flux. The problem is, that hasn’t been proven — and an inquiring public deserves to know the truth.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.