“I run a couple of newspapers,” says the titular character in Citizen Kane. “What do you do?”
Kane is a “newspaper man”: a title that calls to mind smoky rooms, gin-soaked offices, and typewriter clicks. Seeing Gay Talese at the Paris Review event at NYU in April it is easy to imagine just how incandescent the world of “newspaper men” once was; at 69, he is still the most charming man in the room.
Yet, American newspapers, and particularly the New York Times, are not what they were when Talese penned The Kingdom and the Power: Behind the Scenes at The New York Times: The Institution That Influences the World (1969). With flagging ad sales and vacillating circulation numbers, a more appropriate hero for the newest journey into the world of newspaper publishing, the documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times (out today), is David Carr—a one-time crack addict turned Times media writer with poor posture and no time for small talk.
Which is exactly the kind of hero that the New York Times needs: someone unafraid to take on a punishing headwind. In Page One, Carr represents a kind of anti-Cassandra figure, brow-beating Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas Zúñiga, calling out Vice magazine co-founder Shane Smith in an interview, and taking on Tribune Company Chairman Sam Zell for turning his media conglomerate into a kind of “frat house” (Zell’s CEO, Randy Michaels, resigned shortly after Carr’s article was published). As a documentary subject, he is one of the most entertaining to come along in years. He makes you wonder how America has allowed itself to be sated on a diet of high-fructose Kardashian for so many seasons.
While sometimes jarring, Carr’s frank approach is not new. For years, journalists have been called out for being tough or callous. Janet Malcolm went so far as to charge in The Journalist and the Murderer that, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” Over the years, journalism has certainly lost some of its glossy allure. Perhaps good journalism is as “morally indefensible” as Malcolm says it is. Without it, however, all we are left with is slideshows of baby animals in the snow.