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Zettel Film Reviews » Page One:Inside The New York Times – Andrew Rossi

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Page One:Inside The New York Times – Andrew Rossi

 

David Carr - New York Times

 

 

Page One:  Inside The New York Times – Andrew Rossi

Watch out for this one on TV. If it doesn’t turn up then rent it. This absorbing documentary raises perhaps the most important question faced by mature Western democracies now and in the next few years: how do you ensure the independence, accuracy and authenticity of the information with which the people are kept informed about what is happening in the world – home and abroad? In a Wikipedia, Wikileaks world how do we know the truth: in a profoundly complex environment where our most respected, authoritative journalists know that ‘the truth’ is always relative; an aspiration, an ideal, rather than an attainment? The harder professional journalists try to discover as many facts as they can and make sense of them, the nearer we get to something that doesn’t deceive, or distort the reality of events that affect us.

Understanding the inescapable relativity of the news is part of the essential conceptual equipment of being a citizen in a modern democracy. It is acknowledgment of the responsibility to try to understand difficult, often complex issues and in the final analysis decide for oneself. Rightly is a free and independent Press called the Fourth Estate (Independent of the 3 estates of Parliament – The Lords Spiritual, The Lords Temporal and The Commons). Never has this been more important. We have been familiar for many years now with the onslaught of the intentional half-truths of Advertising, Marketing, Sales and PR. We have relied heavily on the professional standards of committed journalists, broadcast and print, to investigate, dig-out, verify and then publish information that as citizens we should know; and as voters are entitled to know; often against the obfuscation and secretiveness of those we empower to govern us. Thalidomide, Watergate, and MP’s expenses – just to name 3 paradigm examples.

What this documentary first ‘documents’ is the rapid decline of the traditional financial infrastructure that has historically trained and employed the journalists, set and maintained their professional standards. Advertising and cover price have hitherto been the cornerstones of financing a privately owned independent press. With advertising revenues in major US print media currently dropping at something over 30% per year and continuing downward, one of these supports is looking distinctly shaky and threatened. Add to this the exponential, uncontrollable explosion of social media like Facebook and Twitter and the global information engines of Google etc – all free at the point of use – and one can see the inexorable pressure traditional newspapers face. Newspapers could employ men and women to witness, investigate and report back to us on wars, catastrophes, political events etc because of the premise that we would pay something to access the information provided as a result. The internet explosion has led us to expect everything from information to music – for ‘free’. Information has become the total ‘loss-leader’ upon which more subtle extraction of money from us is based: information as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

What Wikipedia and Twitter, Facebook and Google represent is the democratization of information and the popularization of relevance: what we get to see, what gets recognized, what gets a platform to be disseminated; is based not upon its degree of relevance or truth but upon the number of people who look at it, repeat it, seek it out. As a parallel, imagine we made a ‘priority news list’ from the number of column inches devoted to different news items in the Guardian, Telegraph, Times and Independent. Then repeat the exercise including the Mirror, The Sun, The Express and The Mail. We would have two very different lists and in even that case despite the difference in approach between the broadsheets and the red-tops, those two lists would be mediated by journalistic selection and editing. If we imagine a third list based upon the level of posts and hits on Twitter or Facebook or U-Tube, one can begin to see the depth and scale of the problem.

Relevance on the internet prioritizes form over content: that is, how one writes is driven by the key words and phrases that will trigger the algorithms that Google uses to prioritize sites and items of information. How many of us look beyond the first page of a Google search result? Getting on the first page and better, getting to the top of that first page has generated a whole new discipline and profession – that of SEO – Site Exposure Optimisation.

This is the war we witness in Page One – The New York Times. It is a war with heroes and villains – for example the extraordinary power and commitment of a journalistic maverick and trenchant advocate like David Carr media editor at the NYT. And the squeamish venality of Sam Zell who bought out the Tribune Group in the US which included the LA Times, milked it dry and took it into bankruptcy: a man for whom not being a newspaperman was a badge of pride – “I’m just a business man.” Even the unspeakable Rupert Murdoch takes pride in being a newspaperman.

As this challenging documentary indicates, it is not just a question of technology. The I-Pad and the ‘tablet’ market generally has been seen in the newspaper industry as offering an electronic extension to their traditional role: many papers including the NYT and the Times in the UK, are now charging for access to full content on the internet. But while this may offer hope on revenue it doesn’t diminish the pressure to compromise on relevance and importance.

Page One – The New York Times draws us into the urgency and immediacy of a bitter current conflict, an issue of substance, being waged by men and women of experience, commitment and even wisdom. We don’t lose precious things in society because someone steals them from us in the night: we lose them because we watch with indifference while they are removed in full view in daylight.

As we in the UK have good reason to understand with the current phone-hacking scandal – the integrity of people who own and run newspapers matters. We must question for ourselves and perhaps resist the internet illusion that everything can be free. Downloading music without payment to songwriters, artists, musicians is a self-defeating indulgence the only logical outcome of which is to destroy what you value because you are unwilling to pay to keep it alive.

The continuance of newspapers and incidentally perhaps books, poses for us the same aesthetic and democratic dilemma. If we let them die by default, through neglect and indifference; we will only have ourselves to blame. Seeing the passion and commitment of the Journalists of the New York Times in action is impressive and makes one feel that if they can fight for something because they believe it is important and worthwhile, the least they deserve is our active support.

David Carr – Media correspondent – New York Times

“The medium is not the message – the messages are the media”.

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