Friday, November 25, 2011

What Oscar Snub of “Page One: Inside the New York Times” Might Tell Us About A Misplaced Losing-the-Battle (and War) NY Times Bet

How many New York Times reader review rating stars has “Battle For Brooklyn,” the Michael Galinsky/Suki Hawley documentary about Atlantic Yards earned? Answer: It’s was rated 5 out of a possible 5 with 14 unanimously positive written reader reviews on the New York Times movies page. That’s good to know and commit to memory because going to the Times reader review page you were likely to see it rated at only 1 or 1.5, the inaccurate underrating being due to a an uncorrected computer glitch snafu.

This mistaken underrating was not the first case of the Times, for whatever reason, giving this Oscar-caliber film less than its due.

I use the term “Oscar-caliber” advisedly because “Battle For Brooklyn” is on the short list of films up for the for Best Feature Documentary.

In fact, “Battle For Brooklyn” and “Bill Cunningham New York,” both films reviewed by Noticing New York appear, respectively, as Number One and Two on the short list list of 15 films winnowed down from the 124 films that originally qualified in the category. (For the Noticing New York Reviews see: Friday, June 17, 2011, I Went To See “Battle For Brooklyn” This Weekend and You Should Too Because . . . . and Saturday, April 30, 2011, A List of Reasons Lovers of New York Should See “Bill Cunningham New York,” A Documentary About Photographing New York Fashion.)

Appearing as Numbers Number One and Two on the list is not meant to speak to the actual likelihood of those films winning the Oscar (although who knows): The films wind up being listed as One and Two because they are listed alphabetically. But it is an interesting coincidence that of 15 films on the list these top two are the two films reviewed by Noticing New York this year.

(Last year, three films that made the short list of 15 documentaries were written about here: “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer,”“Gasland,” and “Inside Job.” “Gasland”and
Inside Job” were then nominated and “Inside Job” won.)

It may be an interesting non-coincidence that another film written about here, a film specifically about the New York Times, was snubbed for this year’s short list: “Page One: Inside the New York Times.” The inclusion on the list of the two other films written about here matched up against the exclusion of “Page One” may say something telling about a misplaced bet the New York Times has been making about what news that paper covers and how it covers it. Styling itself as a national newspaper the Times is apparently making a bet that it needn't treat coverage of significant local New York news with the same kind of journalistic professionalism. (The Noticing New York review is here: Sunday, June 26, 2011, “Page One: Inside the New York Times” Reviewed; Plus The “New York Times Effect” on New York’s Biggest Real Estate Development Swindle.)

Reviews for the Oscar short-listed “Battle For Brooklyn” and the now snubbed “Page One” appeared in the Times on the same day and on the same page. (See: the photo of the print edition’s page above.) The review of “Page One” was above the fold, filling about half the page. The review for “Battle of Brooklyn” was below the fold taking up minimal column space but was accompanied by a large rendition of a Tracy Collins photograph (see below- I can catch myself in the background) elevating the stature of the coverage. This subordinating treatment of “Battle of Brooklyn” in retrospect now looks like another clear underestimation of the film. The review for “Page One”(subcontracted out to Michael Kinsley for conflict-of-interest reason) wasn’t even that flattering, the reviewer misguidedly gave the misimpression that the film was a total mess.

Those who read the Noticing New York review of “Page One” may remember that “Page One” was recommended by Noticing New York as a very good film and well worth seeing, but that I complained about what had been left out and therefore recommended seeing it conjunction with “Battle For Brooklyn” to fill in what was omitted. Specifically, I pointed out that the film did little to address the absence of coverage of local news countrywide and specifically how that deficiency is a big story in New York City itself. The Times is not stepping in to fill a vacuum. Even worse, as exemplified in the “Battle For Brooklyn,” the local news narrative concerning Atlantic Yards as led by the theoretically dependable and unimpeachable Times has resulted in an economic and political fiasco.

One could analyze the problem with “Page One” as being twofold: First, there are the omissions and inadequate work on the part of the Times itself; second, these omissions and failings were not pointed out by “Page One.”

What a strange quirk of fate then that one of the other films edging out “Page One,” “Bill Cunningham New York,” should be another film which is also about the Times since its subject is the well-known Times reporter who covers both high society and street fashion. What's more, “Bill Cunningham New York,” like “Battle For Brooklyn,” also covers the subject of local news coverage more prominently than “Page One.” In my Noticing New York review of the Bill Cunningham movie I came up with a list a ten reasons why Noticing New York readers should want to see the Cunningham movie. With the principal focus of Noticing New York being development and urban design in New York, together with associated politics, I was able to supply a list of ten reasons for readers to see the film. I commented that the film will give them a prism through which to see the city and to think about quite a variety of related subjects; for instance, how much Cunningham sounds like Jane Jacobs: “I let the street speak to me, and in order for the street to speak to you, you’ve got to stay out there and see what it is.”

You see, (and this is something Jane Jacobs might say too) everything is related.

In writing often about New York Times coverage, most recently how the Time screwed up coverage of Bloomberg’s eviction of the Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zucotti Park, I have been making the point that you cannot cover the news selectively. Local coverage is related to national coverage. You cannot selectively cast a blind eye to the misconduct associated with Atlantic Yards as the New York City’s biggest boondoggle. If you try to elide the evils of Atlantic Yards in your pages it will leave holes in the paper-of-record stories about everything else. One of the really big stories about Occupy Wall Street (and even the Tea Party) is the rampant crony capitalism the nation is dealing with. If you are not reporting the real story of Atlantic Yards and the crucial involvement of mayor (who wants to be a national candidate and voice) you are not going to be first, foremost or reliable in reporting about key aspects of the national dialogue.

Something about “Battle For Brooklyn”and “Bill Cunningham New York” was speaking to those selecting films for the Oscar short list in a way that “Page One” addressing the grand theme of the Times as a national paper and institution did not. All three documentaries “Battle For Brooklyn” “Cunningham” and “Page One” involve unfolding of events that could not have been predicted when they were begun. I tend to think that even though “Page One” involves a lot of gripping material it was an easier film to make than “Battle For Brooklyn.” The paper provided access and eloquent talking heads for a year: It is hard to think that with all the national and international stories the Times covers the result was not going to be fascinating. “Battle For Brooklyn,” was undertaken with less certainty about what might result. It was filmed over the course of eight years and in figuring out how to introduce appropriate balance in its perspective faced challenges of access given the heavy duty politics and PR manipulation that has always been so large a part of the Atlantic Yards megadevelopment’s story.

One reason “Page One” can be regarded as a lesser film in the overall contest as films head toward Oscarland is that it does not evade the trap, which must have been apparent from the beginning, of producing a self-laudatory result full of praise for the Times. If it had taken on and absorbed some of the local news coverage issues presented by “Battle for Brooklyn” (or perhaps even “Bill Cunningham”) it might have become a truly great film. Let’s see if New York gets featured amongst the Oscar winners this year. Let’s see if “Bill Cunningham New York” wins for best documentary or perhaps the David against the 1% Goliath/Occupy Wall Street themed “Battle For Brooklyn.”

In that regard we are only talking the documentary film world reporting on the real world. But the Oscar race is a clue to a bigger real world story. That bigger story is about how the New York Times could become a significantly greater paper by setting aside its misplaced bet that it can get away with sidestepping proper coverage of important local news stories like Atlantic Yards or Columbia University’s the similarly problematic use of eminent domain to take over West Harlem or. . . the list of stories goes on. It is a long one because everything is connected.

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