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27 June 2018updated 03 Aug 2021 9:34am

I love newspapers: so why was I bored by Inside the New York Times: the Fourth Estate?

Journalism is fun to do. But it’s never been that much fun to watch.

By Rachel Cooke

Journalism is (mostly) fun to do. But it’s never been that much fun to watch, even in the days before it became so desk-bound – which is why movies about it always come with unlikely scenes in which nervous hacks meet shifty contacts on park benches. I began my working life in a fractious and slightly terrifying pre-internet newsroom, where the phones rang all day long and people still smoked at their desks, and honestly, hours could go by without anyone so much as shouting. Most days, the best you could hope for was that the editor would be moved to run, rather than to walk, in the direction of the back bench, page proof in hand.

No doubt some people will find Liz Garbus’s four-part documentary series about the New York Times and its efforts to report on Donald Trump quite exciting (9pm, 24 June). But I could not love newspapers more if I tried, and it struck me only as mildly interesting. It’s not just that it’s hard to thrill to the sight of a headline that was written several months ago, and whose effect on the president has been, thus far, negligible. All the portentous music in the world can’t animate a sea of desks, or a meeting that goes, as they often do, precisely nowhere. And then there are all the telephone conversations of which the viewer gets to hear only one side. Admittedly, it was a touch surreal when the president rang the reporter Maggie Haberman, who has spent the last decade writing about him, to tell her that, no, he wasn’t remotely bothered his health care plan had gone belly-up (so much for the fact that he doesn’t speak to his favourite “fake” newspaper). But the juicy bit – let’s assume it was juicy – was off the record, and bleeped out.

The first film, which covered Trump’s first 100 days, was suffused with a continuing sense of shock at his victory; one reporter spoke of “the other America”, noting that a guy shouldn’t just wander in to this realm “like an anthropologist” (I was surprised both at this terminology, and at his acknowledgement of the seeming limits of the Times’s interests prior to the election). Still, you have to feel for the paper’s staff. In one scene, a group of reporters huddled around a screen trying to think of a word other than “extraordinary” to describe the latest extraordinary events – and herein, perhaps, lies the New York Times’s problem in the months and years ahead. Its instincts are somewhat prolix; it may need to learn to be a little more demotic in the future.

One evening, a few years ago, I was swimming in the pool of a hotel near Florence when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a certain hairstyle moving towards me in the water. Oh my God. Was it? Yes, it was. Attached to the hairstyle was John Taylor of Duran Duran, the heart-throb whom I disdained as a teenager on the grounds that his band was (I thought then) rubbish, but who now appeared before me looking quite enticing. Moments later, I reached the side of the pool, and there were the rest of them: Simon Le Bon, in a little straw hat; Roger Taylor, in shades; Nick Rhodes, in full make-up in spite of the Tuscan heat (attaboy).

In the 24 hours that followed, during which I surveilled them from behind my sunglasses and a cleverly positioned George Gissing, I observed that the members of Duran Duran really know how to enjoy themselves; that they love their lives in a straightforward, almost boyish way, for all that they’re now middle-aged. My heart softened. The dear things. It softened a little more when I watched BBC Four’s Duran Duran night, in which (in the documentary There’s Something You Should Know – 9pm, 29 June) the old voluptuaries once again splashed around, metaphorically speaking, in the swimming pool. “I was perpetually excited,” said John. He was talking of 1981, but all the evidence suggested that when it comes to exuberance, Duran Duran are still going strong.

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Their enthusiasm – for music, art, clothes, ­for everything, in fact – is braided with a seriousness that is both touching and comical. “He’s a poet, Simon,” said John gravely, which made me think he’d never properly studied the lyrics of “The Reflex”. Le Bon tried to explain the video for “Hungry Like the Wolf”. Yes, it may appear as if he’s chasing a gorgeous woman through a jungle. But don’t panic: what it’s really about is the band, hunting down their careers: “We were so hungry.” The unspoken theme of the night was happiness – and it’s this, and its natural corollary, optimism, that makes new romantics of all hues so loveable. Gloom is simply not for them, unless that’s the name of a good new eyeshadow. 

Inside the New York Times: the Fourth Estate

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This article appears in the 27 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Germany, alone