Yesterday I saw Andrew Rossi’s new film, Page One: Inside the New York Times. It is compelling viewing, though, at times, as disorienting as flipping through the paper itself–an op-ed here, an exposé there, now a little Wikileaks coverage, now some reporting on the downfall of the Tribune Company. Depth and continuity get a little lost in the edgy, docu-style shuffle.

But the film’s main thesis (there are a few of them)–that web-based journalism is altering print media and not for the better–is as worrying as ever. More so, even, in light of the debt ceiling/deficit reduction catastrophe of the last few weeks.

With the explosive growth of the world wide web has come (and this is old news) the democratization of journalism, such that anybody with an internet connection and a point of view can purport to report. What they can also do, as Page One is at pains to point out, is lure away readers (and advertisers) from cultural mainstays like The New York Times.

But usually not with reporting. Or deft editing. And not with indepth investigative pieces that lay out a story in all its complexity. That is, not with real journalism. And because more and more of us get our news from the web–which means we read a few bulleted headlines culled from other sources–more and more of us know less and less about what’s going on in the world.

And this observation doesn’t even get at a host of other troubling trends: manufacturing stories for a populace trained to expect news to break 24/7; polling readers/viewers in order to decide what news to cover (CNN silliness); asserting objectivity while practicing blatant, agenda journalism (Fox News’s laughable “fair and balanced”); talking-head shouting matches that illuminate nothing.

This last trend–the bread-and-butter of cable news “shows”–explains, even as it’s responsible for, the appalling “he said, she said” coverage of the debt ceiling debate. As if trading the tired, unexamined clichés of that false crisis, in higher and higher decibels, did anything but embolden each side to dig in even harder.

Moreover, watch any network’s broadcast of the evening news (erectile dysfunction ads and all), and mostly what you get is a reiteration of this or that politician’s position on the debt and deficit but very little substantive analysis of the cogency and veracity of their wildly disparate claims. Vague arguments, misleading statements and statistics, half-truths, and bald-face lies require scrutiny and exposure. “We report, you decide”–whether it’s Fox News or Diane Sawyer–is journalistic malpractice.

Which gets us back to agenda journalism. Not the polarizing, fear-mongering kind practiced by Fox News (and, very often, by their nemeses at MSNBC), but the kind that says, while fairness is always a fundamental goal, neutrality is a fiction, and what matters most is an informed citizenry whom we credit with the ability and desire to see the several sides of important, complex issues.

More broadly it’s the agenda of clarifying what kind of readers/viewers we want to cultivate: cranky and humorless ones, always suspicious and fearful of the unfamiliar? or those eager to learn, open to changing their minds, committed to the flourishing of all?

Naïve, I know. Journalism is a cutthroat business of ratings and revenues. Soundbyte-sparring sells, as does the sensational over the substantive–every time. There’s no going back. But as someone who has loved journalism since high school, I’d like to have hope.

The best part of Rossi’s documentary is its portrayal of the Times’s media reporter, David Carr. A drug addict for more than a decade, Carr manifests his battle scars (some physical impairment) and the hard-won wisdom that comes from surviving substance abuse. When asked what he’s afraid of (in the context of a conversation about job losses at the Times), Carr states that he’s afraid of bats and guns. “I’m not afraid of anything else,” he says. “The advantage of living a textured life.”

Carr and his story are powerful reminders that good journalism is produced by good journalists, not by slick websites or combative commentators on cable TV, and that telling the news of the day requires experience, competence, and sometimes a hefty word count.  “Some stories are beyond the database,” Carr says in the film. “Sometimes people have to walk past the conventional wisdom.”