Scene4 Magazine: "Page One", "Tabloid" reviewed by Miles David Moore September 2011

by Miles David Moore

Scene4 Magazine-reView

September 2011

It's perilously easy to lose your way ethically in the news business, as the recent scandal involving Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation proved beyond doubt.  But what's worse for reporters and editors is that the public can loathe them just as much for upholding the standards of their profession as for violating them. For millions of readers, there is no difference between publishing The Pentagon Papers and hacking the cell phone of a thirteen-year-old murder victim, except that the former to their minds is probably worse.  A line from the recent reporter-on-trial film Nothing but the Truth sums up the plight of journalists today: "Somewhere along the line we stopped being the good guys, and started being the dragons."

And now, of course, the Internet and the blogosphere threaten the existence of daily newspapers and the continuation of print journalism as a viable career.  Page One, Andrew Rossi's documentary, is a straightforward, mostly interesting account of how the most honored newspaper in U.S. history—The New York Times—strives to remain both solvent and relevant in the age of The Huffington Post.


For the sake of clarity and brevity—Page One runs exactly ninety minutes—Rossi concentrates on the Times' Media desk, the section that reports on the changes in the media world that threaten the paper's long-term survival.  Along the way Rossi touches not only on The Pentagon Papers but also on the recent controversies involving Judith Miller, Julian Assange and the egregious Jayson Blair.  Again, some viewers may find Rossi too ready to side with the Times leadership, but these are mostly the same viewers who wouldn't find much difference between Daniel Ellsberg and Blair.  Rossi acknowledges the paper's mistakes, but sets them within the larger context of its triumphs and its traditional reputation for probity.

Several Times reporters emerge as stars in Page One. These include Brian Stelter, the technology-savvy blogger, and movie-star-handsome Tim Arango, who volunteers for an assignment in Iraq.  But the real star is David Carr, the media reporter whom one reviewer called "The Keith Richards of Journalism."  The phrase is apt.  Tall and ravaged-looking, with a voice that sounds like he survived being garroted by Tony Soprano, Carr is an admitted former crack addict and petty criminal who turned his life around at virtually the last possible moment.  (Carr's memoir, The Night of the Gun, makes interesting if harrowing reading.)  At one point, discussing his past for Rossi's camera, Carr spreads his arms and says, "This is the new me."  He then walks past a drunk sprawled face-down on a bench. "That's the old me," he says.


Much of Page One concerns Carr's efforts to research and write a series of stories about the Tribune Company—publisher of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, among other papers—being driven to near-bankruptcy by new owner Sam Zell.  Zell, as both Carr and Rossi demonstrate, used the company as his personal ATM and was openly contemptuous of the journalists in his employ.  ("Fuck you," Zell tells a woman reporter in archival footage of a Chicago Tribune staff meeting.) In this section of the film, Carr emerges as exemplary of his profession and craft--a reporter who believes that journalism is first and foremost a public service, and who acts consistently on that belief.

Carr also proves himself an able defender of print journalism. In footage of a panel debate, a pompous blog proprietor describes as "bullshit" any suggestion that news blogs are dependent on daily newspapers for their stories.  Carr responds by holding up a sheet of paper that is a printout of the blog's home page for that day.  He explains that he has cut out the capsule description of every story that originated in a daily newspaper.  All that remains of the page is a thin white border surrounding a web of gaping holes. Game, set, and match.

The New York Times has always prided itself on its motto—"All the News That's Fit to Print."  Errol Morris' Tabloid, in contrast, relates the sort of story Rupert Murdoch has always touted--shallow, sensationalistic, designed to sell papers to prurient readers who almost certainly read nothing else.  Never mind that Murdoch never owned the Daily Express or The Daily Mirror, the British tabloids Morris cites. 

Since his first documentary feature, Gates of Heaven, Morris has followed a unique and idiosyncratic path as a filmmaker.  Some of his films, such as The Thin Blue Line (which led to the exoneration of a man falsely convicted of murder) and The Fog of War (Robert McNamara's mea culpa for Vietnam), have been of the highest seriousness.  Others, such as Tabloid, have projected an almost giddy aura of strangeness.  One theme, however, has been constant in Morris' films: the inherently subjective and slippery nature of truth.  In films such as Gates of Heaven, Mr. Death and now Tabloid, Morris has chronicled the tall tales of American dreamers who fail to notice how far their dreams diverge from observable facts.


Stuffed with flashy graphics, cartoons and other eye-catching gimmicks, Tabloid centers on Morris' interview with Joyce McKinney, an American beauty queen who was the cynosure of British tabloids in the late 1970s.  What made her that way were the three days she spent in a cottage in Devon in 1977 with her ex-boyfriend, Kirk Anderson, a Mormon missionary from Utah. Was their tryst consensual, as McKinney told the press, or a kidnapping, as Anderson told Scotland Yard?


Anderson declined Morris' request for an interview, and McKinney now wishes she had: she has picketed Tabloid at various film festivals and threatened a lawsuit. McKinney, who looks like a cross between Gloria Grahame and Sally Struthers, obviously still champions the version of the story she gave the Daily Express in the late 1970s (for 40,000 pounds), portraying herself as a romantic idealist betrayed by Anderson's intolerant family and co-religionists.  Morris, however, insists on including the version ferreted out by the Daily Mirror,rival to the Daily Express. Without going into detail, the Daily Mirror version identifies McKinney as a card-carrying member of what is sometimes called "The Weirdo-American Community."

Tabloid is crazy, effervescent fun while you're watching it, yet I felt vaguely guilty after it was over.  It has been more than thirty years since "SEX IN CHAINS" and "THE MANACLED MORMON," accompanied by photos of McKinney and Anderson, screamed from London newsstands.  Morris found McKinney living celibate and in seclusion, cherishing what she continues to see as her perfect love for Anderson.  What, really, was the need to disturb McKinney's reverie? Granted that it's a great story, and also that McKinney has been in the news again since the "Manacled Mormon" case. (Other reviewers have revealed the reason, but I won't.)  Yet, after watchingTabloid, I couldn't help feeling like Andy Capp pawing over the latest issue of the Daily Mirror for a couple of sexy laughs.

Some reviewers have likened Tabloid to Rashomon, Kurosawa's tale of how truth resides in the eye of the beholder. Others have cited The Story of Adele H., Truffaut's film biography of Victor Hugo's daughter, whose unrequited passion for an English soldier grew to the point that the passion itself became the object.  I agree with those comparisons, and add only a quotation from Tom Waits: "You're innocent when you dream."


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©2011 Miles David Moore
©2011 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Miles David Moore
Miles David Moore is a Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications Inc., the author of three books of poetry and
the Film Critic for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives
Read his Blog


Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

September 2011

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