Liz Garbus’ compelling documentary details The New York Times’ coverage of Donald Trump’s first year in office.
“What a story, what a fucking story,” quips executive editor Dean Baquet on Inauguration Day. This is the start point of Liz Garbus’ The Fourth Estate, a four-part documentary series telling the story of The New York Times during the first year of the Trump administration. The remark is precisely the type that sets the NYT’s liberal readership over the edge – treating the latest shocking twist in the improbable ascendancy of Donald Trump as just another plot point, disconnected from the impact it has on people.
But despite Trump’s complete untethering from the truth and the Times’s unwavering commitment to it, the role of the Grey Lady is not to be another pillar of the Resistance. The dogged, determined journalists are there to put the “story” in “history,” finding the true facts and exerting reportorial judgment to determine the true narrative.
The Fourth Estate depicts how the sausage gets made at the Times, from sweeping narratives to granular headlines. Garbus picks up on both tracks of thought at the newspaper, each equally important to shaping their coverage of the new administration. From the opening scene, in which Baquet leans on the expertise of his reporters to gauge if Trump’s inaugural address was more dire than traditional speeches, she zeroes in on the various processes that determine all the news that’s fit to print. While journalists usually prefer to keep themselves out of the story, Garbus positions the Times and its staff front and centre.
She avoids rehashing some of the greatest hits of the early Trump days, neglecting to depict the Muslim ban or the missile strike on Syria. (Which is just fine – experiencing them once was traumatic enough.) Instead, Garbus limits her scope to the moments where Times reporters played a role in breaking a story or shaping its fallout. It’s grounded deeply in personality and procedure, allowing the journalists’ craft and method to shine.
The superhero, at least of the first episode, is Trump whisperer and beat reporter Maggie Haberman, a dogged workhorse with decades of insight into the animating forces behind the president. She’s also the closest thing to an audience avatar – Haberman confesses that she, like many Americans, presumed Hillary Clinton would win and allow her to return to a normally paced life. But Trump’s victory ensured she stay in high demand and on high alert. (Unfortunately, it also meant she had to renege on her promise that her children would get their mom back after the campaign.)
The other breakout personality, whose name might be less recognizable from political Twitter or her bylines, is Washington bureau editor Elisabeth Bumiller. People in her position traditionally clash with the top brass back in the Big Apple because the bureau chief thinks he or she knows the story better than anyone else, something Baquet knows from having filled the role himself. The belief leads to friction when the New York team completely rewrites her lede following Trump’s first Congressional address, a clash that spurs acrimony and animosity between the two branches.
Garbus foregrounds the documentary in the shuttering of seven floors at the paper’s Times Square headquarters. The contraction of media companies is an important context for The Fourth Estate but does not animate the story in the way it did for Andrew Rossi’s 2011 documentary Page One, a post-recession glimpse of a flailing (not failing) Times. It’s the Donald Trump show; journalists, like the rest of us, are just living it.
Other non-Trump threads, such as Emily Steel and Jim Rutenberg breaking the story on conservative media icon Bill O’Reilly’s sexual harassment scandal, feel a bit superfluous. But they’ll most likely come back full circle in a later section of the documentary when the Time publishes the first story about Harvey Weinstein and opens the floodgates for the #MeToo movement. Garbus clearly knows the rule of Chekov’s gun – an off-handed remark musing about Trump firing FBI Director James Comey foreshadows what will certainly become a massive portion of the next chapter. As does the final word flashing on screen in a reporter’s drafted article: “collusion.”
Published 30 Apr 2018
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