Liz Garbus, one of the finest documentary filmmakers working today, followed another instinct altogether, asking to embed a film crew in the white hot center of the most elite and most maligned spot in mainstream media: the newsroom of the New York Times.
The company’s executives agreed to give Garbus broad access, but mostly steered her away from their Eighth Avenue headquarters in Manhattan, and instead pointed her to the real action, in the paper’s impressively staffed Washington bureau at D.C.’s Farragut Square. There, Garbus trailed Times reporters and editors from Inauguration Day, as they began a frantic process to accurately convey and comprehend the first year of an administration intent on making up the rules as it goes along.
The result, premiering Sunday on Showtime, is an engrossing four-part documentary called “The Fourth Estate.” Although it is filled with sort of pulse-quickening journalistic jujitsu one expects — the deadlines, the doggedness, the scoops, the backlash — it is also refreshingly human in scope, stopping more than once to observe the emotional toll on these journalists who are working themselves to the bone.
An investigations editor looks at the time and realizes that Valentine’s Day dinner is shot. One reporter works out his angst late at night hitting balls at the driving range. Another reporter, a divorced dad, rouses his sleepy kids to get them ready for school as he prepares to face whatever fresh hell the White House beat will deliver today.
And reporter Maggie Haberman, whose stock at the paper soared on her years spent closely covering Trump when he was a Page Six persona, now finds herself on an endless Acela loop between home in New York and her beat in Washington, starting early and ending late, often with a round of TV appearances on the cable-news shows, which means a makeup session and a hair blowout. Her son calls relentlessly until she picks up.
“It’s your mama,” she answers, listening for a moment, then offering him what might also be good advice for half the country: “You can’t die in your nightmares. I promise.”
I will stop here to personally say that Trump fatigue ought to be more of a concern in our industry, from top management all the way down to the voracious readers eagerly clicking on the freshest findings of the 24-7 news cycle. The national desk staffers I see riding the elevators at The Washington Post wear the same looks of dogged dedication as the reporters featured in “The Fourth Estate.” They’re unable to get off their own ego-powered treadmills and hopelessly uncompensated for all the extra — yet vital — hours the work requires. It’s a wonder that we aren’t seeing more reporters and editors leave the newsroom via the paramedic stretcher. The story — this story, this president — is everything.
Garbus’s subjects (many of whom are Post alum) do their best to brush away the intense stress, rationalizing the pursuit over all else. They over-caffeinate and nibble their nails down to nubs in mortal fear of getting beat on a story; the notes in the film’s score grow noticeably more ominous during a shot of The Post’s K Street tower, on the night of a particularly harsh scooping.
“I don’t know how all of this will end,” the bureau’s chief, Elisabeth Bumiller, says at one point. “I don’t know how long it’s going to last. But we will all look back on this and tell our children we were in the Washington bureau at this moment and we covered it.”
“I may never cover a story this big,” says reporter Michael S. Schmidt. “I may never have the opportunity that I have now, and I feel that I have to give it everything that I have. I am single and I live by myself and I have no other commitments. I work and that’s what I do. I don’t even have food in my apartment.”
Garbus’s quiet lionization of their efforts will naturally disgust viewers who’ve fallen in lockstep behind the president’s constant media vilifying. On assignment, the Times reporters are frequently berated by Trump supporters; their attempts to fan out and understand the ramifications of policy on these voters’ lives are sometimes met with slammed doors and lectures about fake news.
The demands on the reporters’ ability to focus are near-constant, from nailing down the stories in motion to honoring the ingratiating requests for sound bites from Michael Barbaro, host of the Times’s instantly successful daily podcast. It can be frustrating to watch Barbaro needle them to “talk a little bit about” the thing they’re busy writing about. Watching the film, a viewer begins to wonder how much easier the reporters’ lives would be — and perhaps how much better their stories would be — if they weren’t always engaged in these acts of multimedia branding.
Twitter looms large and keeps things at a boil; Garbus uses the app’s signature bird whistle to demonstrate how quickly news — and the waves of reaction to it — holds the reporters in constant sway, tempting some of them to get caught up in their own outrage.
From New York, Executive Editor Dean Baquet extols both the modern metabolism of newsgathering and the paper’s mission of independent inquiry, while searching for new ways to pay for it. We watch as the company frees up some capital by reducing the square footage it occupies in its skyscraper, and Baquet begins thinning the newsroom’s editing ranks to hire more reporters, angering the paper’s employee union by offering retirement packages to longtime copy editors who guarded the paper’s tone and accuracy.
We’ve already seen plenty of documentaries about the pains and penny-pinching that come with shifting a print medium to a nimble digital enterprise; the minutes spent explaining the Times’s financial health tend to drag.
The film is most compelling when it’s right in there listening in on phone conversations or hovering behind reporters as they rush to file. If you love watching harried wordsmiths dither over changing “fraught” to “dire” to “treacherous,” then this is your jam.
Depending on one’s particular beef with the Times, “The Fourth Estate” tends to deliver: Those concerned about media diversity will surely notice that a paper with an African American editor and a female Washington bureau chief can still so closely resemble the old club, disproportionately white and male. If you’re waiting to watch as former White House reporter Glenn Thrush gets a two-month suspension for improper behavior, becoming one more example in a sweep of #MeToo coverage (started by the paper’s intense reporting on Harvey Weinstein), it’s all there, as uncomfortable as Times editors may have been about having to discipline an employee with cameras present. And if you’re looking for evidence of bias creeping into the story agenda — bias of any flavor — I predict you’ll find some.
As naive as it sounds, I hope this film reaches an audience beyond nitpicky Times aficionados and self-fascinated journalists. We live in an era where fewer citizens seem to understand that there are many kinds of media, some better than others. And when people do make films about newspapers anymore (dramatic or documentary), they’re usually nostalgic for an era that’s never coming back.
On that point, in all four episodes I don’t recall seeing any of those sentimental shots of presses rolling. Instead, close-ups of the soft keystrokes that create and edit stories seem to faintly echo the clattering wire-service readouts director Alan J. Pakula used in his Watergate movie, “All the President’s Men.”
Rather than presses, the most important object in “The Fourth Estate” is a rectangular blue icon on the Times’s content-management system, marked “Publish.” Whenever an editor in the Washington bureau hovers the mouse over it and clicks, it’s a subtle yet enthralling expression of freedom.
The Fourth Estate (90 minutes) first of four parts premieres Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Continues June 3, 10 and 17.