[Marxism] The myth of the NY Times in documentary form

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jul 7 06:57:29 MDT 2011


The Myth of The New York Times, in Documentary Form
Posted on Jul 6, 2011

By Chris Hedges

The documentary film “Page One: Inside the New York Times” is an 
infomercial for The New York Times. It says nothing about the internal 
dynamics of the institution. It fails to portray the titular Page 1 
process. Most of the film is devoted instead to profiling the paper’s 
quirky media reporter, David Carr. This focus on Carr, who is at times 
engaging and at times pedantic, leaves viewers as ignorant about the 
workings of the paper as when they went into the theater.

During the moments when “Page One” departs from the Carr narrative, it 
has no coherent pattern or internal logic. There are fleeting attempts 
throughout the film to acknowledge the wider institution. These 
scattered moments are abrupt and incoherent. Director Andrew Rossi 
throws out a dizzying array of issues, from the future of iPods to 
newspaper paywalls to the $250 million loan provided to the paper by the 
Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim but never adequately explores any of them.

The scenes showing Carr slowly gathering string for a story and prodding 
sources to talk are the most engaging in the film and at least 
illustrate how labor-intensive and difficult good reporting can be. They 
remind us how much poorer we will be if there are no longer institutions 
that make this work possible. By the end of the film we get a sense of 
Carr, who is a talented and dedicated reporter, and a few of the stories 
he covered, from CNN’s bizarre affiliation with Vice magazine to Comcast 
buying NBC. Carr, irascible and funny, is deeply grateful to the paper 
for giving him a stable job, especially after his checkered past as a 
crack addict who spent time in jail. Again and again he defends the 
goodness, integrity and sagacity of his employer. But while Carr and 
others who are interviewed, including David Remnick, editor of The New 
Yorker magazine, pay homage to The New York Times’ greatness and 
importance, the Times itself remains, in effect, offstage. These hymns 
of praise become like the munchkins lauding the great and powerful Oz to 

Carr, whose personal history makes him an anomaly at a company that 
attracts well-heeled and often overeducated reporters, is shown at work 
on a 5,000-word investigative piece with his editor Bruce Headlam. The 
article details the mismanagement at the Tribune Co., which owns the 
Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. Carr exposes the “frat-boy 
culture” that plunged the Tribune Co. into chaos and bankruptcy. Sam 
Zell, the Tribune owner, is shown in the film making some truly stupid 
and disgusting statements, including deriding anyone who thinks 
journalism should contribute to the common good. Tribune’s onetime Chief 
Executive Officer Randy Michaels, who opened up his penthouse suite for 
long poker games, is not far behind Zell in his imbecility and outdoes 
him in personal impropriety. Two weeks after Carr’s article, Michaels is 
forced to resign. By comparison, of course, The New York Times looks 

Rossi also follows the publication of the leaked cables provided to the 
paper, as well as to Der Spiegel and The Guardian, by WikiLeaks’ founder 
Julian Assange. The struggle by the paper’s editors to deal with the 
controversial material illuminates the clash between the closed, insular 
world of the Times and the technological revolution that has overtaken 
them. Brian Stelter, the young reporter on the media desk with Carr who 
began his career as a blogger, and who Carr quips was perhaps a robot 
created in the basement of the Times to destroy him, rues the 
technological backwardness of the newsroom. Stelter rolls his eyes as he 
points out that editors at the paper leap on stories he read about hours 
earlier on his Twitter account. The editors are seen trying to make the 
21st century world of the Internet, instant messaging and Twitter fit 
within the 19th century rules of newsprint. Susan Chira, the paper’s 
foreign editor, dismisses Assange as a “source,” although Times 
Executive Editor Bill Keller admits in the film that Assange is in fact 
a partner. Chira also confesses that she had never heard of WikiLeaks 
before the group put out its video of civilians being gunned down by 
U.S. troops in Iraq from a helicopter. Chira typifies many at the paper 
who appear to believe that nothing really exists if it is not covered by 
The New York Times. Those running the paper, we see in this moment in 
the film, are struggling to adapt. The contents of the WikiLeaks cables 
dominate the paper’s front page for several days. But editors make snide 
and condescending comments about Assange. They argue about whether he 
can be considered a reporter. They dismiss him as an activist. And their 
smugness not only implies that they alone work from pure, honest and 
disinterested motives, but exposes their insecurities in a media 
landscape that on some level no longer needs them.

The documentary touches on, although without much background 
information, Judith Miller, the reporter turned stenographer for the 
Bush White House in the buildup to the Iraq War, and Jason Blair, the 
habitual liar who falsified and plagiarized stories. Miller and 
Blair—and I was working for the paper when each of these scandals 
occurred—were not, as the film implies, rogue reporters who beguiled 
their way into a trusting newsroom. They embodied the most serious 
institutional failures. A more sophisticated filmmaker like Fred 
Wiseman, who had asked the Times management several times if he could 
film a documentary in the newsroom and was turned down, would have known 
what to do with this material. Miller and Blair were given free rein by 
senior management because they exhibited the amorality that is prized by 
the management. They served only their own careers and those editors who 
could make those careers advance. They were grotesque prototypes, to be 
sure, but they exemplified the subservience to authority and abject 
careerism that poisons the institution.

Blair and Miller, whose behavior was reprehensible, were fired. But they 
were also scapegoats. They, and many at the paper, have no real moral 
compass. They know the rules imposed by the paper’s stylebook. They know 
what constitutes a “balanced” story. They know what the institution 
demands. They work hard. They have ingested the byzantine quirks and 
traditions of the paper. But they cannot finally make independent moral 
choices. The entire paper—I speak as someone who was there at the 
time—enthusiastically served as a propaganda machine for the impending 
invasion of Iraq. It was not only Miller.

The film should have looked more carefully at the colorless editor of 
the paper, Bill Keller, who will step down in September. Keller, who had 
been given a column as a consolation prize when he was first passed over 
as editor for the hapless Howell Raines, served, as faithfully as 
Miller, la causa. He was a vocal cheerleader for the war in Iraq. In one 
column he called for the firing of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell 
because Powell wanted U.N. approval for an invasion. He wrote glowingly 
about Paul Wolfowitz. And once he was in charge of the paper he placed 
Sam Tanenhaus, a conservative admirer of William F. Buckley, in charge 
of the Book Review section and the Week in Review.

Keller, whose on-camera comments are bland and vapid, represents the 
ascendancy of neocons inside as well as outside The New York Times. This 
process of ideological reconfiguration, first begun by the paper’s 
Editor Abe Rosenthal in the 1980s, was accomplished through a series of 
purges, persecutions, firings and dismissals as well as the appointments 
of those who, like Tanenhaus and Keller, have little allegiance to the 
tenets of traditional liberalism, tenets that made a free press 
possible. Senior editors such as Keller and Tanenhaus are products of 
the time. They do not question the utopian faith in globalization. They 
support preemptive war, at least before it goes horribly wrong. And they 
accept unfettered capitalism, despite what it has done to the nation, as 
a kind of natural law. The reigning corporate ideology has infected the 
Times as it has most other liberal institutions. Because this ideology 
does not challenge the status quo it is defended by these editors as 
evidence of the paper’s impartiality, balance and neutrality. 
ExxonMobil, Citibank and Goldman Sachs are treated with deference and 
respect. The inability to see that major centers of corporate power are 
criminal enterprises that are plundering the nation and destroying the 
ecosystem is evidence not of objectivity but moral bankruptcy.

The motion picture’s focus on Carr and the media desk, one of the 
smaller and less important departments in the paper, means that the most 
important sections in The New York Times are ignored, including Foreign, 
National and Business. The Business section, which never appears in the 
film, is one of the largest in the nation. Its editors and reporters, 
however, completely missed the looming financial meltdown. If the 
paper’s reporters had spent time in poor neighborhoods where subprime 
mortgages were being peddled to people who could never repay them, they 
would have understood and been able to explain to readers the tottering 
financial system. But poor people rarely get a voice in the Times. 
Instead, the paper’s business reporters busied themselves with 
interviews with the elite and powerful on Wall Street or the latest 
financial “news,” much of it manufactured by public relations firms. The 
Times’ obsession with access has blinded many at the paper to the dark 
machinations of the corporate state. And the paper, as advertising 
revenue has plummeted, has become ever more craven in its efforts to 
placate the wealthy elites their corporate advertisers seek to reach. 
The lifestyle sections of the paper are rife with stories about fancy 
restaurants in New York, summer happenings in the Hamptons, designer 
wardrobes, expensive cars, exotic vacations and exclusive private 
schools that are accessible to only a tiny percentage of rich Americans. 
The headline in Sunday’s Real Estate section is typical: “It’s July. Do 
You Know Where Your Beach House Is?”

The Times, like Harvard University, where I attended graduate school, is 
one of the country’s most elite and exclusive institutions. Its ethos 
can be best summed up with the phrase “You are lucky to be here.” That 
huge numbers of people at The Times, as at Harvard, buy into this 
institutional hubris makes the paper, where I spent 15 years—nearly all 
of them, thankfully, as a foreign correspondent a few thousand miles 
from the newsroom—a fear-ridden and oppressive place to work. The Times 
newsroom, like most corporate nerve centers, is a labyrinth of intrigue, 
gossip, back-biting, rumor, false piety, rampant ambition, betrayal and 
deception. Those who play this game well are repugnant. They are also 
usually the people who run the place.

When you allow an institution to provide you with your identity and 
sense of self-worth you become an obsequious pawn, no matter how much 
talent you possess. You live in perpetual fear of what those in 
authority think of you and might do to you. This mechanism of 
internalized control—for you always need them more than they need you—is 
effective. The rules of advancement at the paper are never clearly 
defined or written down. Careerists pay lip service to the stated ideals 
of the institution, which are couched in lofty rhetoric about balance, 
impartiality and neutrality, but astutely grasp the actual guiding 
principle of the paper, which is: Do not significantly alienate the 
corporate and political power elite on whom the institution depends for 
access and money. Those who master this duplicitous game do well. Those 
who cling tenaciously to a desire to tell the truth, even at a cost to 
themselves and the institution, become a management problem. This 
creates tremendous friction within the paper. I knew reporters with a 
conscience who would arrive at the paper and vomit in the restroom from 
nervous tension before starting work. If Rossi had examined the effects 
of this institutional hubris and the pathology of the paper’s 
self-infatuation, if he had looked at the paper’s large and small 
failures as well as its successes, he would have pushed past the myth of 
the Great Oz, peddled to him by the paper’s editors and minions like 
Carr, and uncovered its troubled core.

Chris Hedges worked as a foreign correspondent at The New York Times for 
15 years. His column appears on Truthdig every Monday. He is the author 
of “Death of the Liberal Class” and “The World As It Is: Dispatches on 
the Myth of Human Progress.”

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