With all due respect to the Jewish Week (and all other Jewish newspapers), it is the New York Times — and not the Jewish papers — that is the Jewish community’s newspaper of record. I know this from being a lifelong reader of the Times and I know this from my years as a Times employee.
I was a Times reporter from 1975 to 1993 and in all those years, it was virtually impossible for me to go to shul without someone asking me about the Times. “Why is the Times so tough on Israel?” “Why didn’t the Times cover the Shoah?” And, my favorite, “How can I get my daughter’s wedding announcement into the Times’ society page?”
The question I’ve gotten in shul in more recent years has been one spoke with some relish (and often at Kiddush): “Could the New York Times actually close?”
And so it was with great anticipation that I bought my ticket last week for “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” a new documentary by Andrew Rossi, whose film credits include “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Food, Inc.” In addition to everything else, I had heard that the Times’ media columnist, David Carr, was the star of the new movie. As a newly christened media columnist myself, I wondered if I too was destined for stardom. (After all, Carr does say: “If you work for the media long enough, eventually you’ll type your way back to your own doorstep.”)
After seeing “Page One,” I have to say that my curiosity about David Carr was more than satisfied (he is quite a colorful character and not a bad dancer) but I come away with no new insights into the Jewish nature of the paper or its coverage of Israel, the Palestinians or, for that matter, anywhere else in the world. As for speculation about the Times closing, the movie gives a firm and definitive answer: “No!” (For this I paid $13?)
In short, this is a movie for media junkies. And not just people who care about the media, but people who care about the how the media covers the media. Let me explain. The Times has many desks with many editors: foreign, national, sports, fashion, society, business, etc. It also has a media desk with — brace yourself — four reporters and one editor. This movie is a story about how the media desk of the New York Times covered the recent meltdown among other media companies. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Closed. The Rocky Mountain News. Closed. The Tribune Company, publisher of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. Scandal-ridden and bankrupt. The Washington Post. Still publishing but diminished.
We see the Times’ intrepid media reporters scurrying about like so many advance obituary writers, covering the debacle while fending off questions about the Times’ viability. No one is a greater Times champion than Carr. He is shown in at least three public debates defending the Times.
If this movie provides any insight into the current state of world affairs, it is through the story of the Times’ decision to partner with the secret-spilling website Wikileaks to reveal diplomatic secrets about the war in Iraq. But this chapter is told not as an international news story but as — you guessed it — a media story. There is not a mention of the revolutions shaking the Arab world (or what this might mean to Israel).
Perhaps the most irritating aspect of the movie is that it doesn’t answer another question I frequently get in shul: “Will the New York Times continue to exist on paper?” This is something that shomer Shabbos people care deeply about since, at least one day a week, they don’t read the paper online.
The movie skirts this issue even though it is called “Page One” and even though so much of its footage is of the Times’ “Page One” meeting and of the paper coming off the presses at the Times’ printing plants, Page One first. The filmmaker never addresses the issue of whether the Times will go all-digital or continue to print its Page One on paper. The virtual front page can be as long or as short as the web designer decides. But then what would the creator of “Page One” have called the movie? “Home Page”? Not a very enticing title. But then it’s not a very enticing vehicle for delivering a newspaper either.