‘I turned out to be completely wrong’ about ‘Page One’

Filmmaker Andrew Rossi was asked by a San Francisco Chronicle reporter in June if the New York Times Media Desk declared anything off limits when he was making his documentary, “Page One.” His response:

There were 14 journalists on the Media Desk. I’m not sure if every single one was there, but most were, including two females on the desk, Motoko Rich and Stephanie Clifford. I had asked them several times to participate in the picture, I really wanted to represent a full picture. Unfortunately, they both declined.

I wondered what Rich and Clifford now think about their decision not to participate. Did they like the documentary after seeing it? Here’s what they told me in emails:

STEPHANIE CLIFFORD
Andrew did ask me to participate in the film, but I wasn’t comfortable with it for two main reasons. When he started making the film, the company was going through a rough time, other newspapers were shutting down, and there was a lot of doubt about the future of the industry. Given the timing, I suspected it would be a documentary that painted newspapers, the Times and our group in a bad light. (Andrew came in when the memory of the Jason Jones Daily Show piece on the Times was still fresh.)

I turned out to be completely wrong — Andrew’s film was lively and interesting, and he showed the great personalities of the media group just as they are, but I wasn’t sure enough of his intentions going in.

The other reason I declined was because I was covering media people, who are pretty jittery about being covered to begin with. Many of them were talking to me on background or off the record, and probably would have been fired if their bosses found out they were talking to me. I didn’t want to compromise my sources, or alter the quality of an interview, by asking them to be on camera or having to tell them a filmmaker was recording my end of the interview. I was also imagining what would happen if, say, a particular Conde Nast caller ID showed up on my phone and the shot was accidentally included in the film — it would have gotten the people I talk to in trouble, and that’s not fair to them.

I think the film was terrific, and was a great portrait of what the journalists here do. And yes, I was totally envious when I saw Brian Stelter strutting the red carpet at the premiere, but that’s mainly because he has a better figure than I do nowadays.

MOTOKO RICH
I really enjoyed Page One. As you’ve probably heard, we had a staff screening in the Times Center and it was great to feel the warmth in the room for our friends in the film. I thought David Carr was a phenomenal movie presence, and Bruce Headlam was a break-out star. (Did you see his appearance on The Daily Show? The movie wasn’t a fluke…) And along with Brian Stelter, Tim Arango and Richard Perez-Pena, they all came across as fighting the good fight for the journalism we believe in.

It’s not quite accurate to say I completely declined to participate in the film, as I did give one to-camera interview to Andrew. It didn’t end up getting used.

It is fair to say that I didn’t want the camera following me around on interviews or on the phone. That was a personal choice; I’m happy to give interviews about my published stories, but didn’t feel comfortable being shadowed. It’s not my style and I worried my sources might feel uncomfortable. Still, more power to my colleagues, who represented the media pod and newspaper with great panache.

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“Page One” is now available on Netflix Instant Streaming.

COMING SOON: A Q-and-A with Andrew Rossi, who told me in email on Nov. 14 that “I am jumping on a plane to Paris for the French premiere of the film (the success of the movie internationally is actually a great story).”

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