Defending the Times, David Carr Saves Page One

Alice Gregory | June 24, 2011
New York Times media reporter David Carr in "Page One"

It’s surprising that some media geek hasn’t already uploaded all the sequences of Page One that feature David Carr into a single, streaming video. Surely, it’s coming. For all its flaws, Andrew Rossi’s much-discussed, all-access documentary about the New York Times is worth seeing if only for those parts. Carr, the former coke-addict-turned-ace-media-reporter is the film’s star, and he shines so bright as to all but blind us from the narrative sloppiness that surrounds him. Carr’s personality is so big that merely putting him in front of the camera is enough to transform him into a sort of character. He describes his own past as “textured,” but he’s also the paper’s foremost defender, something that comes across most vividly in a ruthless interview with the publishers of Vice and a conference takedown of Newser founder Michael Wolff.

If you wanted to divert a teenage boy from fruitless hobbies, you could expose him to a few minutes of Carr and instantly change the course of his life. Carr types, tweets, chain smokes, and wears promotional polar fleece. Mountain Dew bottles litter his desk, and he takes notes on whatever flat surface seems to be in front of him. He swears. He interrupts interviews to rip his subjects new ones. Carr’s famously shredded voice sounds like one of those dogs with their vocal cords removed. It almost hurts to listen to him. But seeing him interrogate Tribune Company execs over the phone is better than a boxing match. Carr elevates media reporting from the realm of gossip, where it often lives.  (For more explanation and less idolatry, read Tom McGeveran’s long and excellent profile of Carr in Capital New York.)

But the Page One scenes without Carr in them sink into chaos and mild tedium. The other members of the media desk come off comparatively charmless, and we don’t really get a definite sense of what they’re doing throughout the day.

The film opens with shots of the paper’s printing presses reeling and spinning. Gears grind and sheets fold. It’s a false set-up, though, one that primes us for more industry cross-sections than the film really delivers. That the New York Times gets written and edited and printed and distributed every single day is honestly just incredible, but Page One doesn’t pay due credit to the product. When we sit back into after those opening shots, we expect a literal and chronological account of just how the hell this thing happens 365-day-a-year without fail. But the most common complaint about the doc — that it’s a structural mess — is hard to dispute: Instead we get a lot of disjointed narratives and a sycophantic ending.

Either Rossi got extremely lucky in the making of the Page One or a lot of less-compelling months are edited out of it. The Iraq War “ends” on Rossi’s watch, and its Wikileaks cables make the front page for nine days running. These events and how they are handled by top editors are supposedly the meat of the film — the historical examples through which we are to see how the paper works: how pitches are received, assignments given, space allotted, layout decided upon. In a ferocious review in the New York Times itself, Michael Kinsey complains that after having the film he didn’t “know much more than [he] did before.”  This is true: we see a few 10:30 pitch meetings, a lot of scurrying around about lunch time, and then a few 4:30 meetings in which Executive Editor Bill Keller decides what goes on A01, which, when muttered amidst the frantic concerns of the day sounds more like a military command than a page number. But walking out of Page One not knowing much more than you did before might actually be the film’s main conceptual asset, even if incidental.

It’s doubtful that a tedious rehashing of any single day in the newsroom would tell us anything very revealing about how things work over at 620 8th Avenue. When people pick up their copy of the paper in the morning — any paper, but especially the New York Times — they’re reading something that is more than the sum of its bylines. It would seem that to explain the daily mechanics of the paper might require more minutae than we could endure. That, apart from Carr, we don’t hear the sort of salty phone calls we want from the bullpen (“Listen, no, no, give this to me straight….”) is no surprise; certainly, many of the daily exchanges that make up a work day are conducted through email now, a medium far less conducive to filming. And in truth, Times staffers probably go home every single day amazed and relieved that everything came together as it did —  that their article is in the morning’s paper, that there’s full section at all.

A bit of b-roll of the Gawker offices after an interview with its founder Nick Denton is a subtle but effective reminder of just what a different beast reporting is from commentary and aggregation. During the course of the film, business media reporter Tim Arango is sent to Iraq (his appointment as Baghdad Bureau Chief is written in the epilogue), and that sub-narrative alone should chasten any viewer still skeptical of the new Times paywall. The takeaway is clear: Of course we pay for this. There are people here working all night and risking their lives — if only for that, we pay.