Showtime is airing “The Fourth Estate,” a documentary series by Liz Garbus that follows reporters and editors at the New York Times as they cover the first year of the Trump administration. She was given remarkable access at the Times’ headquarters in New York and at the Washington bureau, so that in some scenes, she captures both sides of a conversation between colleagues about how a story will be written.
The biggest takeaway from “The Fourth Estate” is the never-ending effort to get the details right. That’s become harder when dealing with the administration of a president who is constantly bashing the media (particularly the Times), claiming that they make up stories and sources. Of course, he only believes that when it comes to negative stories about him — but at the same time he’s launching those attacks on Twitter and at his rallies, behind the scenes, he serves as a source himself, calling Times reporter Maggie Haberman to offer his spin on whatever issue has made headlines that day.
Haberman, who has proven herself a vital reference on all things Trump, is one of the stars of “The Fourth Estate,” along with DC Bureau Chief Elizabeth Bumiller, business reporters Emily Steel and Michael Schmidt (Pulitzer Prize winner for their reporting on Bill O’Reilly that led to his being fired by Fox News Channel), media columnist Jim Rutenberg, reporter Matt Apuzzo, and many others whose names I know from reading the NYT every day — in print!
Aside from their devotion to gathering facts and telling good stories, I was struck by how much harder the job of newspaper reporters is than it was a generation ago. Then, you worked all day on whatever you were covering, typed it up and handed it in by the deadline, and you were done until the next day. Now, there’s a deadline every minute because you not only have to get the story ready for the print edition(s), you also have to publish it online as quickly as possible, then send out news alerts on social media, then sit for an interview with Michael Barbaro (who hosts the Times’ extremely popular “The Daily” podcast), and then likely have to go back and update the story all over again at any time of the day or night. Oh, and you’d better get it out there before the Washington Post does. If that’s not exhausting enough, consider how much tougher it is when you also have to deal with blowback from the White House, other media outlets, and Twitter trolls, all of whom think you’re just another biased elitist liar.
One of the most telling comments in “The Fourth Estate” comes from Dean Baquet, Executive Editor of the Times, who bemoans the shrinking of the newspaper industry and how few outlets are left that have the resources to do not only daily reporting and analysis, but long-term investigative work. Despite what Trump claims, the Times isn’t failing (its online subscriber base has increased six-fold in the last year), but it still has to squeeze space and personnel into a budget that’s much lower than it was before the digital era. Yet its commitment to remaining one of the world’s most-respected news sources is apparent in everyone featured in Garbus’ documentary.
Showtime is airing the series on Sunday nights, but has also made all four episodes available for free on its website. If you’re at all interested in the inner workings of a journalistic institution covering a very resistant administration, you owe it to yourself to watch “The Fourth Estate.”