David Carr, who passed away on February 12, 2015 at the age of 58, was an inspiration to us, to journalists generally, and to any curious person. In his essential New York Times column and in his life, David
In his review in the
New York Times, Michael Kinsley calls Page One, the documentary about the New York Times, “a mess.” He’s right, but not in the way he thinks it is.
Apart from the messiness of the topic itself, there’s something nice about a sprawling approach, especially when our stories so often come in the form of Tweets, updates and headlines designed to be clicked on. It’s satisfying to see a fly-on-the-wall account of the business (and one of its epicenters) at a moment when transparency is king, but it’s also nice to be reminded about how good stories can be told. It can be hard to remember in the chaotic ecology of the Internet, where we follow links down their rabbit holes towards not wisdom, not opinion, not reporting – but information that’s crowd-sourced, aggregated, liked, and thus given a stamp of “relevant,” “important.”
By Kinsley’s account, the movie, with its impressionistic, rambling portrait of the news business, sounds a lot like the Internet too, born of a style that “keeps things moving but requires some discipline.” Discipline is what serious journalism has, and this, he’s clear, is not it: “It flits from topic to topic, character to character, explaining almost nothing.”
But the movie is a portrait of chaos, and a compelling one at that. It’s not a newspaper article or a well-structured op-ed. It’s a testament to the sort of journalism that still matters, that still separates Page One from the Internet’s homepages. It’s proof that in whatever medium you’re working – and there are a lot to choose from now – stories matter, and so do their sources and their subtleties. Page One may explain almost nothing, but some things aren’t so easily explained. Some times they have to be seen, and thought about, and discussed.
Kinsley’s bitter assessment then serves as proof of precisely the kind of journalism that the movie documents. In the interest of avoiding a “conflict of interest,” here’s the Times striving for as much distance as it can on a documentary about its own newsroom. Kinsley (who works for Bloomberg) goes out of his way at the start to indicate there is no conflict here, which was presumably why he was asked to write it (despite not being a film critic at all) and why he sounds nearly indignant at the film’s emphasis on “a media columnist and reporter named David Carr,” who is guilty, apparently, of loving the Times.
Given all of its (defensive) sense of self-importance – one stoked now more than ever, by, for instance, what some indignant Times partisans in the movie call “stupid” rumors of the newspaper’s demise – it’s not surprising to see a writer in the Times flaunting the paper’s concerns over integrity, like the righteous golden boy that new media expects it to be. “The Times deserves a better movie,” writes Kinsey imperiously, before adding the exortation, “and so do you. See ‘His Girl Friday’ again.”
Nerves have been touched clearly, and Kinsley’s review is only further proof, again, of a point that the movie is trying to make: if it’s not fighting for its life, good, level-headed journalism is on a mission to prove itself worthy in the heady, loud age of the Internet.
Carr is a fantastic spokesperson for that mission and for the meta concerns at the heart of a shrinking newsroom. “There was just this sort of decades of organizational hubris about, you know, our own excellence and our own dominance,” he tells the camera early on in the film. “And then in a matter of like 18 months, all of a sudden…everybody started like asking a question: could The New York Times, like, go out of business?”
A scene from “Page One," in which David Carr uncovers ugly details about the bankrupt Tribune Company
In an effort to remain balanced and fair and critical, papers like the
Times aren’t competing against a “new media” boogeyman. They’re already deeply and often smartly embedded in the Internet themselves, and that’s where things get messy. Struggling with new modes of reporting, Internet economics and increasingly fuzzy lines between the demands of advertising and the demands of editorial, the corporate structure of news – “the muscles of the institution,” as Carr calls them – presents its own challenges to the newsroom. Through the collapse of the Tribune company and the Comcast
If Page One is ultimately a meditation on a shift between old and new technologies (Twitter and the iPad both make prominent, almost ominous appearances), what’s mostly missing is the story about the message that those technologies carry. When the tools effect the content, they’re really inseparable. But the content – what goes on Page One – gets little screen time here.
Still, in one of the film’s best scenes, when Times’ editors argue over whether to cover a made-for-TV ending of the Iraq war, the film shows why we need an editorial system that can still vet stories, not just pass them on. For outlets like Gawker, the bottom line may be “all about the story, and it doesn’t matter where the story comes from,” as Gizmodo’s Brian Lam said after a screening at Gawker HQ last night. That may mean eye-grabbing headlines (Nick Denton says in the film that no one wants to read the Times). But as the Judith Miller fiasco famously taught us, focusing on stories over sources is precisely how journalism can get us into trouble, and precisely why people like Judith Miller represent an even more formidable threat to the Times than the Internet: without reptutation, accurate information, and good reporting – no matter how hard the story is to get or to tell – no one would be worried about losing the Times to begin with.
Carr Vs. Vice
David Carr gets to defend these journalistic rigors when he
pays a reporting visit to the offices of
“Before you ever went [to Africa], we had reporters there reporting genocide after genocide. So just because you put on a fucking safari helmet and look at some poop, that doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do.”
Pause, as he stares down the
As good a badass character as Rossi has found in Carr, he’s certainly an unlikely spokesperson for the Times, which in spite of its assumed peerlessness, can still be accused of stodginess, arrogance, obnoxious trend stories. But the triumphalism of new media mavens like Jeff Jarvis, Arianna Huffington and Michael Wolff ultimately rings hollow against an even more compelling argument by Carr, the one he makes, remarkably, without even opening his mouth. At an old vs. new media debate, he shows the audience a print out of the front page of Wolff’s kaleidoscopic Newser.com. Then he picks up another copy, this time with the stories aggregated from “old media” torn out of the page. It’s full of holes, like some stale Swiss cheese.
The debate is much more complicated than that of course – new media and old media exist in a growing symbiosis – and much more interesting too. With David Carr as the film’s Ulysses, we get a neat metaphor for the messiness and interestingness of the moment: a baby boomer with a complicated, twisted past who manages to keep one foot in social media and the other in the kind of media still made by calling people up on the telephone. Here’s a man who is capable of covering not just the news and the news media, but what’s going on inside the newsroom, whatever that is now, and the web that's transforming and swallowing it. “The media equation,” as David Carr’s column calls it, is a messy and tough and sometimes dull-sounding story. But it’s a mess we’re all in, and no matter how unsolvable it can seem, in the hands of good journalism, it can make for fascinating reading, and watching.
Charlie Rose Talks to David Carr Talks to the Future
Hiding from the Internet on a Desolate Island
The Future Was Yesterday
Gawking at Nick Denton
Bill Keller vs. Julian Assange
Tom McGeveran: The Kingdom and the power of David Carr