Thursday, April 3, 2008

"Presses" gloriously spotlights newspapers' plight

By PHILIP WUNTCH
Film Critic Emeritus
"Stop the Presses: The American Newspaper in Peril" got a thunderous ovation in its world premier showing Wednesday at the AFI Dallas International Film Festival.

Outstanding documentaries have been a highlight of this year's fest, and "Stop the Presses" belongs in the front rank. Co-produced and co-directed by Dallas documentary filmmaker Mark Birnbaum and former Dallas Morning News staff critic Manny Mendoza, the film offers a rich history of American journalism and a probing dissection of print journalism's current precarious state.

Wednesday evening's Magnolia audience was filled with journalists, obviously sympathetic to the cause. But "Stop the Presses" will appeal to anyone who's ever enjoyed the ritual of reading a daily newspaper. Without being pedantic, it should also enlighten viewers who open a newspaper only to peruse the ads. Additional screenings are today at 4 p.m. at the Angelika, and Saturday, 1 p.m., also at the Angelika.

So can I be objective when discussing "Stop the Presses"? Hell, no!

I toiled for four decades in Dallas newspapers, the first two years at the Dallas Times-Herald, the remaining 37 years at the Dallas Morning News. In December of 1974, I became the first employee to have the title of Film Critic, a job I loved.

I sensed the quiet desperation of the early 21st century and watched it grow into noisy desperation by the middle of the current decade. I accepted Belo's buyout offer in September 2006 after upper management made it clear how movies would be handled in the future. Since then, I have watched the quantity and quality of film coverage diminish with excessive use of wire stories from non-Dallas sources. This practice violates the personalized love/hate relationship that should exist between local moviegoers and their hometown movie critics.

But the print journalism chaos is nationwide and not limited to the local scene. "Stop the Presses" covers the territory admirably, mixing archival film and television footage with contemporary interviews. The movie clips feature legends such as Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Rosalind Russell and Kirk Douglas, highlighting the era when newspaper reporting was considered a "glamorous" profession. Television clips range from "Lou Grant" to "The Simpsons" and "The Sopranos." All the juxtapositions are clever and revealing. As a piece of sheer film making, "Stop the Presses" shines.

Former Dallas Morning News employees interviewed in the film include Charles Ealy, now of the Austin American-Statesman, who eloquently states that "the press is a fundamental key to democracy"; Ed Bark, who now commandeers the popular and newsworthy Unclebarky.com Website; Craig Flournoy, now an SMU journalism prof; and Michael Precker, who now manages the "gentleman's club" The Lodge, following a wide-ranging journalism career. It also includes comments from former Mayor and New York Daily News/Dallas Times Herald/Dallas Observer/D Magazine columnist Laura Miller.

As an increasing number of newspapers have "gone public," executives have become answerable to large corporations, which many observers feel hinders aggressive investigative reporting. As a result, blogs have become more popular, providing the unbiased reporting many feel the mainstream press tries to avoid.

However, neither Mendoza nor Birnbaum feels it is curtains for newspapers, and "Stop the Presses" ends on an optimistic note.

"For the next 10 or 20 years, we will still have printed newspapers," Mendoza said following the screening. "But printed newspapers may become an elitist product, with more and more readers turning to the Internet."

"But there will always be a human need for news," Birnbaum confirms.

On Saturday, April 12, Ed Bark will interview Birnbaum and Mendoza on the Uncle Barky Show. Beginning at 4 p.m., the show will include extensive outtakes from Dallas Morning News staffers. The gathering will take place at Stratos Global Greek Tavern, 2907 W. Northwest Highway. Admission is free.

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