Media reporter Brian Stelter of the New York Times is on to what he thinks is a major story: President Obama is coming to Buffalo, but he's not being automatically accompanied by the TV networks, as was always the case with presidential travels in the past.
They're "trying to save money" -- in other words, not doing more with less, as he says, but just doing less.
His immediate superior cracks, "the last president who made news in Buffalo got shot." (A decent crack, if not scrupulously accurate. Teddy Roosevelt's decidedly newsworthy subsequent inaugural took place here at the Wilcox mansion.)
Not long after, the Times' culture and media reporter David Carr is discoursing on decades of "organizational hubris." With irony, Carr's Times-style hubris when the singular reporter talked recently about Republican would-be presidents on Bill Maher's "Real Time" led him to say that in such middle American states as Kansas or Missouri, one finds residents doing "the dance of the low sloping foreheads." It was followed immediately by his asking the HBO show's host "did I just say that out loud?"
It's a predictable moment when the tough, rude, profane Carr suddenly became just a wee bit too quotable for his own or his neighborhood's good. But in "Page One: Inside the New York Times," director Andrew Rossi is no fool in his documentary about the Times as the unquestioned flagship of an imperiled fleet of daily newspapers.
Carr is the focus of Rossi's film, as well as its obvious star. He is, in a sense, one plausible, provisional answer to the deeply distressed profession of which he's such a colorful and admirable part.
Carr is, in fact, everything no one thought New York Times journalists would ever be -- a "character" that A.J. Leibling could never even have imagined for his New Yorker press criticism: a recovered crack-addict who wrote of his old scrounging life in "Night of the Gun" by revisiting it as a reporter. He's struggled with cancer (lymphoma) and continues to struggle with diabetes. He's known jail in his life and what it's like to be on welfare.
He is eloquent and wildly witty, even if he doesn't know which syllable gets the emphasis in the word "cacophony." His high voice is usually described as "raspy," but that seems inaccurate if you think of heroically raspy American voices like those of Louis Armstrong and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. Carr sounds more like a man with a limited supply of air in his lungs trying to push what he's got through a narrow opening. He sounds like a guy who's dying in a war movie telling the soldier giving him a last cigarette to say goodbye to his wife back home for him.
It is Carr, the dogged reporter and hopelessly interesting man, whose wit and hopeless humanity took over the film and is one of the most plausible answers to the ongoing occupational ravagement it explores from the standpoint of what may be the country's hardiest (so far) newspaper, the New York Times, which continues to be national, international and cultural in the face of all the mediocre consultants everywhere else advising localism as a refuge from falling skies.
Carr's flaws are even more inspiring than his work ethic. He is the glorious answer to a previous Times editor (Howell Raines) whose presumptions of perfection ran smack up against the paper's Jason Blair and Judy Miller problems. (Carr reported in an interview with a New Jersey paper the laconic comment by now-departed Times executive editor Bill Keller on finishing Carr's book "Night of the Gun" -- "Should we only hire nuns?")
Director Rossi and his co-writer Kate Nowack try to make nonjournalists responsive to all the issues they present in "Page One: Inside the New York Times": the assaults from all sides of the digital world, the failure of journalism's own culture to understand its own flaws, myths and delusions (says one former Wall Street Journal editor, "no way you can make a business model out of investigative reporting"), the arsenal of issues presented to journalism by WikiLeaks.
To journalists, every second of "Page One" will be riveting. To civilians, it is Carr on his appointed rounds who provides one answer to a profession's grave maladies. When his superior -- the fellow who smugly offered McKinley as the last president to make news in Buffalo -- says that buyouts and layoffs are one way a newspaper has to "dump bodies overboard," it is Carr who provides the antidote to "organizational hubris."
And, he says, all the "carnage has left behind an island of misfit toys We are fully engaged in the revolution."
I think 19th century journalists -- who invented the American newspaper -- would recognize completely Carr's answer. Mark Twain -- that white-haired, white-suited eccentric and well-traveled celebrity who made a life out of saying colorful things and ordinary things colorfully -- would have understood Carr perfectly.
Twain was no nun either.
> PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES
Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: David Remnick, Carl Bernstein and many members of the Times staff, including David Carr, Bill Keller and Brian Stelter
DIRECTOR: Andrew Rossi
RUNNING TIME: 89 minutes
RATING: R for language
THE LOWDOWN: The nation's greatest newspaper copes with WikiLeaks and its own survival struggles in a faltering business.