Movie Review: State of Play And the Death of the Newspaper

Sara AM Golling
By Sara AM Golling
May 13th, 2009

Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck team up to offer star billing for what amounts to a marketing ploy for the struggling newspaper industry. Paper papers are in a state of crisis. A Pew Research Survey has confirmed that over the last year, readers who use the internet as their sole source of news has gone from 24% last year, to 40% this year, for the first time passing paper papers, who are at a mere 35%. It was time to say something.

What we are witnessing is the final impact caused by the fundamental transformation offered by the Web. It was just a little longer in coming than previously expected. The revolution promised with its advent inspired wild ravings about the death of the “old economy” and the birth of a “new economy”. The mass hysteria that ensued brought about the great stock bubble, known as the Dot Com era, which finally collapsed in 2002.

Since then, there has been a profound readjustment in the perceived value of the Web. Ironically, it was hippie programmers who built the Internet in the first place, driven by high ideals about transforming society, and making information universally available. But when Wall Street was alerted to the Web’s potential, they saw only dollar signs, because they failed to understand its technical or even societal significance.

The internet is, essentially, an information medium, but one enhanced with a set of technologies that completely transform the way information can be accessed, and more importantly, interacted with. So the pets.com, and furniture.coms of the prior bonanza have been replaced with the real successes of Google, Wikipedia and Facebook. A new era commonly referred to as Web 2.0.

The full impact of the Web has yet to be experienced or even appreciated however. Without becoming overly enthusiastic, we can at least start to understand what is already happening. First was music, which has already been suffering for years, and largely self-induced due to their refusal to embrace the new paradigm. Likewise, the movie industry is neglecting to learn from the experience, and also beginning to suffer the consequences.

And now, though the internet has been alive for almost 15 years, it is newspapers that are beginning to feel the brunt of the assault.

Together, these, and many other industries they are connected with, form what is essentially an old-guard. They are mature industries, surviving not on competitiveness, but on monopoly. Theirs is an outdated classical type of capitalism. A Dickensian world of factories and of workers, who are never fully grateful of the benevolence of their bosses. They require maintenance of the Status Quo, and the vanity that they are entitled to their privilege, because, the masses of consumers are unimaginative. That is what monopoly stifles.

It’s also an old value system that treasures the bottom line more than contribution towards the betterment of society. That’s what the hippies who built the internet were fighting against. But now the establishment is fighting back, and all their arguments are exemplified in this movie.

It exploits the classic genre of political conspiracy thriller to communicate its message. Crowe plays a scruffy luddite who uses a 16 year-old computer, and drives a rattling Saab. He’s the old-school reporter who knows how to do the dirty work to get the story. Unlike, that is, his colleague, the blogger for the online version of the paper. Through various nuances, the movie insinuates that the internet is the equivalent of the tabloid press. Fortunately, however, we are led to believe, she learns the ways of “real” journalism from the wise and crinkly old Crowe. And in the end, she concedes that their scoop is a big story, and that the “people should probably have newsprint in their hands”.

This is merely a reiteration of the tired excuses now used again and again by what David Cox calls, in his review of the same movie in the Guardian, “the dead-tree newsbiz”. That, without the big mainstream papers, who will be paid to come up with the big scoops. This is merely a Hollywood version of reality, and saying a lot is the fact that the only past real-life scoop the film could refer to was Watergate. What has traditional “investigative” journalism revealed since?

The truth is, as we all know, the so-called “free press” has performed abysmally, and completely squandered its reputation for its whore-like service to the political establishment. They have acted more like lapdogs than watchdogs.

The movie is pining after the bygone days of “true” investigative journalism, while actually diminishing the current phenomenon that is now accomplishing much the same. If the “blogosphere” has been successful, it’s because it has offered a fresh new critique of that establishment, for which the masses have been yearning for years. So instead, the mainstream media responds with a juvenile counter-offensive of, “you can’t believe what you read on the Internet”.

The movie ends with what is essentially an homage to the newspaper. The credits at the end roll over a series of shots showing the final results of the scoop being published, from screen preparation, to printing, to packaging. What is being really being shown though is a sentimental pageant of obsolete technology, like the steam-train, horse-drawn carriages, typewriters, and I’d say, television.

The real point missed however, is the egregious waste that is involved in assisting the purported prestige of putting it “in print”.


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