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Politico coverage of Newseum Event Highlights Participant

The Grey Lady’s glasnost Keach Hagey /Politico June 16, 2011   It may have been the most meta media moment ever: a media reporter interviewing two other media reporters about their role in a documentary detailing their struggle to cover the financial peril threatening their own newspaper.   It kind of makes the eyes cross.   Yet there I was, quizzing New York Times media writers David Carr and Brian Stelter ahead of yesterday’s Washington premiere of “Page One: Inside the New York Times” about this very hall-of-mirrors effect. Shouldn’t a documentary designed to make people care about the future of journalism focus more on, I don’t know, the Baghdad bureau?   Carr said he initially shared my skepticism.   “I agree with you. You write about people who write about people who write about people who actually do things. So it’s like, really?” he said, later adding, “When it started, I was like, this is a movie?”   But the reviews thus far have been mostly positive, as was the buzz in the lobby of the Newseum last night. Perhaps that’s because the people behind the film have a fair amount of experience making audiences care about journalism. Andrew Rossi, who made the film with his wife, former Time magazine writer and filmmaker Kate Novack, was associate producer of Control Room, the affecting documentary about Al Jazeera in the early days of the Iraq War. And Participant Media, which acquired the film along with Magnolia Pictures after Sundance, has thrown its weight behind a raft of social issue films, including the Edward R. Murrow biopic “Good Night, and Good Luck.”   As with Participant’s other films, including “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Waiting for Superman,” “Page One” comes packaged with a call to social action, which is only possible because Rossi and Novack frame the uncertain future of the New York Times in particular and newspapers more generally as a pressing issue for American democracy. The Times had no editorial control.   Brian Stelter, the media reporting prodigy who joined the paper on the strength of the blog he started in college and has come to symbolize its tweeting, tumblr-ing future, said he agreed to let the camera follow him around at work in part because it would be good for the journalism industry, and in part because, when you’re already doing so much social networking, appearing in a movie is not so different. “We should all be doing more to make our sales pitch,” Stelter said. “Journalism has always been about marketing. And Twitter has shown us that more clearly, that we are all marketers. And that marketing extends to showing up on camera.”   The camera was originally going to focus exclusively on Carr, who, as the Times media columnist, embraced the potentially awkward role of narrator of his industry’s darkest years and infused it with optimism, poetry and – in the case of the Tribune Company takedown that forms much of the film’s narrative arc – righteous investigative fury.   Carr is not camera-shy, as fans of the old Carpetbagger Oscar videos can attest. But the documentarian shadowing him did eventually start to creep out his friends and sources.   “After a while I just said to him, look you’re going to get your story, but it feels like I’m not goingt to get mine,” Carr said. “I think I was interviewing [Forbes media reporter] Jeff Bercovici about something, or we were just getting a cup of coffee or something, and you could just see Bercovici looking at this camera going, ‘I’m not going to say anything.’ I just decided that was not good for me.”   So Rossi pulled back to look at the whole Media Desk, including Richard Perez-Pena, Tim Arango (who does actually head of to Baghdad midway through the film) and Bruce Headlam,the media and marketing editor.   The chemistry between them is oddly riveting – watching them come to the decision not to cover NBC News’s made-for-TV “scoop” about the last combat troops leaving Iraq is priceless – but that decision also created a few unfortunate byproducts.   One of them is that, outside of a few words from Managing Editor Jill Abramson during a Page One meeting, there are essentially no women in the film.   Carr calls it “a very significant issue for the film,” while Stelter counters that it is more of a “significant issue for the media desk” – though in reality that desk is not an all-male affair.   “It’s a problem for [Rossi], most definitely, because he shows a prism that was filled with a lot of testosterone,” Carr said. “And two of the reporters who I thought would have made epic good subjects, Stephanie Clifford and Motoko Rich, both of whom are incredibly articulate about what we do, are really typical Timesmen, forgive the term, in that fitting is more important than sticking out. It’s less about what you say and more about what you do. Andrew doesn’t agree with me – few people do – but I also think there is a gender bias towards being a ham.” Although the film chronicles a pretty horrible time for newspapers, during which the Times has to report on its own layoffs of 100 people, the internet that is doing this damage to its business model is also helping to pry open the institutional fortress.   In this way, the film can be seen as part of a broader glasnost that’s been going on for a while now at the Grey Lady. It includes outgoing Executive Editor Bill Keller’s provocative columns and frank rhetorical attacks on Fox News and Arianna Huffington during public forums, as well as a general willingness among Times staffers to take reporters’ and readers’ questions.   Such openness and engagement are likely to continue under Abramson, Stelter said. “What did she do her first month when her promotion was announced?” he said. “Among other things, she went downstairs to the social media team, talked about Twitter, learned Twitter, had a Twitter account set up and now she’s tweeting. She’s the first executive editor who will take over in the era of Twitter. It’s a good sign that she’s already on the service, already replying to people.”   In the spirit of that openness, Stelter doesn’t hesitate in replying to a media reporter’s prying question about why quotes from Fox News executives began appearing in Stelter’s stories recently after a long stretch of conspicuous absence.   “You never know what’s going to get you on the blacklist or off the blacklist with Fox, to say it as bluntly as possible,” he said. “You can never really predict what’s going to upset them or frustrate them or disappoint them.”   Carr, who has written about the issue directly, agreed.   “It’s a black box,” he said. “The times that Fox is willing to cooperate? Unbelievable insight across the entire industry. Great people to have involved in a story when you do. Comprehensive knowledge of their competitors. But whether they are playing or not playing, it’s all up to them.”   Stelter said the most important thing was not to let the level of cooperation dictate the amount of coverage.   “I can swear that we have never changed our amount of coverage of Fox based on whether they are talking to us or not talking to us,” he said. “That’s the only part that I care about.”   Carr said that when it came to people writing and talking about the Times, he tries to be as open as possible and speak on the record if he’s going to speak at all.   “I’m always stunned by people who will not engage,” he said. “I dealt with USA Today a while ago on a story that was manifestly not a great story. I just felt, if I’m writing 1200 words, what if 200 or 300 came from you? Wouldn’t you be glad? Wouldn’t that be in your interest? Why not just take that space away from me?”   The films shows Carr doing some negotiations along these lines for his Tribune takedown, which prompts legal threats from the company just before it is published. It’s at this moment that the Times’s institutional heft comes into play, protecting Carr and pushing ahead to publish a story that will take down the company’s CEO within the week.   For Diane Weyermann, the executive vice president of documentary production at Participant, this was the film’s critical moment.   “Every time I see that scene toward the end, when the Times decide that they are going to publish David Carr’s article about Tribune and you see the printing press starting to roll – every time I watch it, I just feel very, very moved and very fortunate that we live in a society where we value that,” shesaid.   “Page One” opens in New York on June 17th, Los Angeles on June 24th and in Washington, DC and other selected cities on July 1st. http://www.politico.com/blogs/onmedia/0611/The_Grey_Ladys_glasnost.html