Just what do we mean when we call something a crisis? How does this interpretive frame interact with material circumstances? These are the guiding questions for a chapter appearing in The Crisis of Journalism Reconsidered, edited by Jeffrey C. Alexander, Elizabeth Butler Breese, and María Luengo, just published by Cambridge University Press. My contribution, “Telling the crisis story of journalism: narratives of normative reassurance in Page One,” homes in on the larger questions of just what is happening to journalism through a particular text – Andrew Rossi’s 2011 documentary Front Page. The movie mainly follow the media desk at the New York Times as it covers the economic hardships engulfing the news media industry – including the Times. The movie presents an industry in peril with the threat to news not just one of change but of existential threat. But this is a particular vision with particular emphases and blindspots. That’s what is always important to remember about the application of “crisis” to a set of events. There is no denying that the news industry was suffering at the moment, but at the same time how this is understood matters. As I argue in the chapter, a particular diagnosis leads to a particular course of treatment (while excluding others). In this documentary, what emerges is a discourse of “normative reassurance” wherein journalists advocate for the retention of core values even as the media and platforms through which news is produced and circulated change.
Research takes time, books take time, and sadly between writing this chapter and its publication, the much-beloved New York Times media columnist David Carr passed away in 2015. Carr was very much the star of Page One. The film gets into Carr’s personal tale of redemption and his improbable ascension. Clips from the movie were on frequent display after his death. The importance of his place in how we understand journalism is hard to overstate, and the editors of the book rightly decided to dedicate the book to him.