‘The Fourth Estate’ Follows New York Times Staff on the Trail of Trump Presidency
Showtime’s new docu-series “The Fourth Estate” gives you a sense of how hectic covering the Trump White House can be for a major newspaper staff. Its four episodes chronicle the first year of the current administration as the New York Times attempts to stay on top of every firing, investigation and blistering quote. The prime value of this series is how it gives viewers an insider’s view of the hustle and bustle of the Times. There’s never any shocking revelation to be had, the headlines are the same ones all political junkies have feverishly devoured. What is engaging is how “The Fourth Estate” shows you precisely how those headlines are put together.
Director Liz Garbus opens in January 2017 on the New York Times staff sitting around their offices, watching on television as Donald Trump is sworn in. No one is unaware that this is a historical moment. Garbus then follows a whole cast of reporters as they begin covering the administration’s first months in office, all under the eye of Executive Editor Dean Baquet. Soon Trump’s policies become quickly overshadowed by the allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. As award-winning journalists scramble to get information from inside the halls of power, the Times also faces the realities of a changing market as print media gets increasingly pushed aside by digital outlets. Staff has to be cut down, at one point the newspaper loses 7 floors of its office building. All this as readership is suddenly boosted by the fascination for Trump and this increasingly divisive era in American politics. The James Comey revelations, the Robert Mueller investigation and the public debate involving sexual harassment all envelop the newspaper staff in a year that never seems to end.
“The Fourth Estate” veers back and forth between capturing the details of daily newspaper life in the modern era and trying to find some sort of grander, connecting theme regarding the rise of Trump. There is an obvious lean towards portraying Trump as a Nixon-style villain, or ominous presence. More than once a few staffers will allude to looking for the Woodward & Bernstein “moment.” But the docu-series is not made in hindsight, it has a real-time urgency, and there is no big final resolution because the Robert Mueller investigation is still ongoing. The bigger picture in a sense remains blurry and incomplete. Where the docu-series shines is in taking us into the New York Times world and its operations. It is a nice panorama of the life of investigative journalism. We follow White House correspondent Maggie Haberman as she follows Trump’s every move, calling sources in the White House for information, and spending all night at the office. She keeps promising her children she will be home soon, but history gets in the way and she has no choice but to plow through. There’s a particularly revealing moment where she is covering an event and answers the phone to assure her child, “no, you can’t die in your nightmares.”
Anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom will instantly recognize the moments where staffers huddle around a computer screen, looking for the right words to describe an event. Writers like Michael Schmidt and Michael Schear try to make sense out of both the Russia investigation and Trump’s constant game of firing and rotating White House figures. There is great tension when writers rush to tweet or post breaking developments, because the competition, especiall y the Washington Post, is always around the corner. Garbus uses a nice touch of zooming into words as they are typed and arranged, to give a sense of how good journalism is partly an art of speed and craft, both at the same time. If “The Fourth Estate” did not focus on the fine details it would not be as effective, because in terms of its political content it rarely goes deeper from what we already know. During a phone call between Haberman and Trump following the failure to pass new, Republican legislation on healthcare, a large chunk of dialogue is bleeped out after Trump warns a particular statement is off the record. Someday we might know what he said. Steve Bannon is the one major cameo from the original White House lineup, as he sits down for an interview with a reporter and issues his usual, “this is a revolution” rhetoric. An edgier moment comes when Bill O’Reilly’s sexual harassment scandal explodes, and writer Emily Steele reveals O’Reilly threatened her over the phone “with everything he’s got” after she contacted him for a story. She would go on to share a Pulitzer Prize with her colleagues for their reporting on sexual harassment.
Yet you also get the unavoidable suspicion that we’re not getting more of the rougher edges. Like the recent documentary on the last year of the Obama White House, “The Final Year,” there is a sense here that everyone is on their best behavior for the cameras. There is a stark and bitter twist in the fourth episode when a staffer becomes the focus of sexual harassment allegations. When Baquet holds meetings and struggles with what decision to make, the rigors of running a team become more frank. Yet at its weakest the docu-series is almost a recruitment video for the Times, but at its best it excels in capturing the environment of newspaper work in a changing culture.
There is another urgency to “The Fourth Estate,” which is a need to let viewers see why journalism is essential for a free society. In a particularly disturbing moment during an Arizona rally, Trump singles out the media section to hurl insults and use his infamous “fake news” accusation. Faces in the crowd turn to the reporters and cameras, cursing and jeering. In another moment Baquet struggles with having to lay off workers and editors in order to hire more reporters, especially ones who can do online or video journalism. As the need for information and awareness becomes more urgent, journalistic institutions like the Times discover they have to make tough choices.
“The Fourth Estate” is the world’s most famous newspaper operating in real time, attempting to report on a different kind of presidency deeply affecting the national culture. For the uninitiated, it offers a glimpse at the grind of chasing down a story, attempting to get the facts right, and all the sleep that is lost in the process.
“The Fourth Estate” premieres May 27 at 8 p.m. ET on Showtime.