What, then, is journalism? According to famed reporter Carl Bernstein it’s the “best attainable version of the truth.” In order to accomplish that already qualified statement (the key word “version”—like passing a story verbally down a line of kids—suggests that the complete truth will never fit the necessarily limited space of print in particular and other media in general, not to mention the “succinctness” of tweeting ideas and thoughts in just 124 characters or debate by sound bite), former owner of the Tribune Company, Samuel Zell, opined “I want to make enough money so I can afford you [journalists].” That mantra and some bonus-laden buds who knew precious little about the newspaper business managed to send the media empire into bankruptcy protection.
Filmmaker Andrew Rossi has cobbled together a largely well-balanced examination of America’s “paper of record” and produced a multilayered look into the precarious state of print journalism in today’s social-media-driven world. He is aided and abetted by many of the New York Times’ journalists and editors as they go about the business of deciding just what will be “fit to print” in the famed daily’s multiple editions. Chief amongst those is intrepid reporter David Carr. The former drug addict takes no prisoners when conducting interviews that can result in threats of legal action: the closer he gets to the truth, the more likely the chance for a kill-the-story order rather than face litigation. In the piece chronicled here, the threat (from The Tribune Company) fails to have its effect and the publication of the salacious details that are part and parcel of the media organization’s demise leave the court calendar clear and the principal grip-and-grin salesman looking for a new company to fleece.
But there are also two major examples of “physician heal thyself” recounted for the record. Judith Miller’s damning columns warning of Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction had their effect, causing millions to “cheerlead our way to Iraq.” To her credit, Miller does admit that she was wrong, but only because her sources were. More recently (2003), the plagiarism scandal surrounding Jayson Blair was another serious hit to the credibility beat of the storied publication.
In the current era of instant journalists on the Internet and a steep decline in print advertising revenue, many papers are fighting back—somehow: the business model has yet to be perfected—by embracing new media on the struggle to keep balance sheets near the black. Brian Stelter made the reverse cross-over, abandoning his blog to write about all things digital media for the paper whose stock price has been in the same range as the price of the mammoth Sunday edition.
Survival at any cost (financial or reputation) has spawned unlikely partnerships such as CNN with VICE Media (all the better to get viewers under 49) and WikiLeaks with The Times. Julian Assange’s first batch (concertedly leaked/published in two other newspapers) caught the attention of the Pentagon and the circulation management team. The subsequent barrage of diplomatic cable leaks was justified by senior editors: “The people had a right to know just how their government operates.” Yet the fascinating question as to whether or not WikiLeaks could be classified as a “source” is never fully resolved.
Retrospectively, the infamous release in 1971 of the Pentagon Papers by The Times reminds everyone that there is nothing new under the publication sun. Still, that whole affair took 22 months from leak to print where today’s latest documented transgressions can be on YouTube et al before the ink gets dry.
Winning several 2010 Pulitzer Prizes for Journalism appears to be executive editor Bill Keller’s last hurrah before handing over the position to Jill Abramson. Those wanting to get their NYT fix online will now have to pay for the privilege of digesting “all the news that’s fit to print.” Yet with diminished resources (laying off 100 staff in 2009 is one of the film’s telling moments) and an uneven past in ensuring the articles that do see the light of day at least fit Bernstein’s simple standard, the future seems as challenging as ever. Happily, more scandalous acts and unneeded wars will arise to not only fit the bill of truth telling but also pay a few. JWR