By Matthew Sorrento.
In the early 1930s, just after the birth of sound in movies, an older medium was running through the newer one. Newspaper movies, or reporter characters onscreen, regularly appeared to remind viewers that events are only as vital as how they are covered. The great newspaper films of Hollywood’s golden age aside, such as The Front Page and Citizen Kane, various genres relied on the theme. The gangster film Scarface (1932) showed how the city of Chicago learns about the film’s opening event, a hit by Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte. The publisher orders his editor to print the headline ‘Costillo Murder to Start Gang War!’ – a moment showing how print media shaped public knowledge. Even a horror film like Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) – the lesser-known inspiration for House of Wax, starring Vincent Price – featured a reporter character. (Today the fit seems as odd as a song showing up in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.)
Today, the newspaper theme in the American film is an element of nostalgia. We see reporters in entries like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, which attempts to recreate a past milieu. All the President’s Men now stands as the last great newspaper film showing the power of the classic press. In his new documentary about The New York Times, director Andrew Rossi returns to the lost genre to reveal how reporters cover the media. Aside from the countless issues raised in the film – the Times‘ potential in new media, its occasional faults, and its relationship to media outlets like WikiLeaks – Page One celebrates a grand institution and is a must for historical and cultural knowledge. I interviewed Rossi in Philadelphia just before the film’s local release.
Can you tell me about your personal experience with the Times?
While growing up, my parents had the newspaper delivered, as well as the New York Post. And I’ve continued the tradition by getting the Times everyday. Now I have a three year old and a one year old, and they see mommy and daddy reading the paper. So I think they are getting the newspaper bug by osmosis.
Yes, though one of the things I took away from making this film was, ironically, a love for Twitter. For professional reasons, it’s interesting because many people are tweeting about Page One. To me it’s an efficient, lightweight delivery platform from sources you trust. Sure, Twitter is new media, but a lot of the time it delivers articles from old media institutions, such articles from the New York Times, Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal.
I like how you open your film with the massive rolls of virgin newsprint. When did you decide to open your film in such a way?
That’s a good question. I shot that footage when David Carr’s story about the Tribune (scandal) ran in the Times. We wanted to be in the printing press the day that front page story was released. I didn’t shoot that until October (2010). I basically stumbled across the opening near the end of making the film. But I saw it as a moment of ritual, that slow loading of the material.
It shows what’s at stake: print journalism, but also how slow and cumbersome print can seem. It’s as if the forklifts are transporting corpses. Did you want that dual meaning?
Yes. We had three editors, one of whom was Chad Beck, who edited that sequence. He worked on Inside Job. He is really skilled, especially in that sequence. We saw the rolls of print as a romantic image, but also anachronistic.
Did you think of those speedy, hot-off-the-press images in classic Hollywood?
Absolutely. The genre of newspaper movie was really influential to how we shaped this movie. All the President’s Men was a major inspiration.
It must have been great to see the French Citizen Kane poster in Bruce Headlam’s office. Did you want to exploit that as soon as you saw it?
Yeah, but I knew that we’d have to explain it, because it’s so on point, which we do near the end of the film.
I know you took a fly on the wall approach, by waiting around the reporters’ desks for something to happen. How did you manage to engage the reporters while staying removed?
I would sit in or near the cubicles, turn the camera on, and just wait. It was a real physical process, working with a camera radio mic, and shotgun mic. I had to manage the equipment while eyeing the content. I stayed removed in the beginning, to establish relationships. Then, in moments when David Carr was contacting the Tribune company, or when Brian Stelter was interviewing Julian Assange about the WikiLeaks story, they forgot I was there, in these moments of pressure. I would show up at the building with a general sense of what stories were developing. Then, I would check in with Bruce Headlam, the media desk editor, as to what stories he was assigning. I was trying to map trends and try to discover which stories years from now would embody this moment.
You had another project with David Carr that led into this one.
I was making a documentary for HBO about Web 2.0. It was aimed to capture the utopian benefits of social media and the newest wave of entrepreneur, like Dennis Crowley of Four Square. I was interviewing David Carr about Crowley. It was right around the time that Michael Hirschorn published his story in The Atlantic speculating that the Times would go out of business. David was really bothered about this, and our conversation kept coming back to the future of the Times.
What a godsend Carr is for your film. Did you know he would be a major focus?
Yes, definitely. He has this backstory of overcoming drug addiction, and now he’s fearless. He doesn’t take bullshit from anybody. He’s willing to clobber anyone verbally.
I think that’s happened because he has a lot of credibility in the new media world. He was an early adopter of Twitter. He wrote a story called ‘Why Twitter Will Endure’. And it doesn’t hurt that he has over 300,000 Twitter followers. He’s constantly researching and writing stories about new media outlets that impact the publishing world. I’m not sure if he’s an expert in technology, but he’s this type of Max Headroom figure of today. For some reason, he rings true in the short-burst video format, especially since he did the ‘Carpetbagger Blog’ during the Oscars. He has this human element that comes through online, in text, video, and Tweets, for that matter.
As much as print and new media seem to contradict, they really coexist, and Carr shows this. Especially when you see the power of the New York Times reporting on WikiLeaks. One day I came in and Brian Stelter was reporting on a video on YouTube showing a helicopter gunning down Reuters reporters. For years, Reuters had been trying to obtain the video through Freedom of Information, but now WikiLeaks did something that Reuters couldn’t do for years. Newspapers do a great job of going through new media sources and finding trends.
I like how you show Carr at home, away from the office. In a way, he seems like an outsider of the press establishment. Do you see someone like him as the future of the Times, or someone like Brian Stelter, who appears to be wired in the newsroom, plugged into countless sources?
I like how Carr isn’t the classic Timesman, that he’s the Virgil in this movie’s journey. Though he’s just as smart as that cliched image, just not as elite and arrogant. He is an outsider, but is an insider of the most journalistic institutions.
I worked at New York One News (NY1) for a short period in 2004. So I had some familiarity with a newsroom. It does seem like most reporters have a television, to see what is breaking there, like Anthony Weiner confessing. It goes back to your previous question, who is the Times‘ future, Stetler, with all those wires going to his brain, or David? All of these journalists are up to speed. There’s no way to survive without the new media and its future.
I know that you were going for an insider’s view of the Times. Did you worry that you wouldn’t have an objective point of view?
We knew that it was important to talk to people who had a critical angle on the Times. We spoke to Sarah Ellison, who’s a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and Kurt Anderson, one of the founders of Spy Magazine which used to have a column about the Times. Even Gay Talese had some critical things to say. We were sure to step out of the building at times. But we wanted to give people a front row seat at the Times. If people think what they see is archaic, that will declare itself. If people see vital conversations going, important work done, then that will also demonstrate itself.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J. His book, The New American Crime Film is forthcoming with McFarland.
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