In the opening scene of “The Fourth Estate,” a documentary that goes inside the New York Times during the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency, staffers are quietly standing and watching the inauguration speech on newsroom monitors. Executive editor Dean Baquet breaks the spell.
“What a story,” he says, almost under his breath. “What a fucking story.”
That about sums it up. It’s also about as crass as Baquet gets in the film, which portrays him as an even-handed leader straddling the unhappy divide between old-school investigative journalism and the financial pressures facing newspapers today, when news is breaking faster than ever and resources are shrinking.
Director Liz Garbus is an Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning filmmaker who tackles some of the toughest subjects imaginable, including children with mental illness, poverty, AIDS, prison life and the death penalty, by telling people’s personal stories.
She does the same in “The Fourth Estate,” a four-part Showtime docuseries. Part 1 screens on July 26 at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, where Garbus will appear for an onstage conversation and receive the festival’s Freedom of Expression Award. Her documentaries have been shown at previous SFJFFs, one of them a study of the First Amendment featuring her father, constitutional attorney Martin Garbus.
“The Fourth Estate” plays a bit like a political thriller, with determined, good-guy journalists searching for the truth and serving the public interest, as opposed to a president who lies without compunction, calls the media an “enemy of the people” and disparages anyone who threatens his power.
Despite Trump’s attacks on the New York Times as “failing” and “fake news,” this documentary shows how the paper of record continues to do compelling investigative journalism during a chaotic time. It does paint a somewhat idyllic picture of a daily newsroom, with only a handful of references to the toll the job takes on personal lives, and it never shows staffers losing their cool or shouting over each other (or is that only at Jewish newspapers?).
Garbus was given remarkable access to editorial meetings and newsroom discussions, offering viewers a rare inside look at what it takes to produce stories in a hypercompetitive, deadline-driven environment.
White House correspondent Maggie Haberman, who has covered Trump for many years, offers insights to her colleagues shortly after the inauguration. “He’s fascinated-slash-obsessed by the Times,” she informs them, and has a need to be taken seriously by his hometown paper. “He’s always going to care enormously about what the Times writes … it just plays a different role in his psyche.”
While there was no shortage of newsworthy events in those first 100 days — the Supreme Court appointment of Neil Gorsuch, the firing of acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates, Jeff Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigations, the canceled vote over repealing the Affordable Care Act — much of the focus is on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and whether any Trump associates were involved. It quickly became apparent that it would be “one of the most competitive stories of the year,” says Washington Investigations Editor Mark Mazzetti.
At times the camera shows staffers reacting to news they are just learning about themselves. You can almost see the ideas starting to churn: What is the story behind what we’re seeing here? How do we get at the truth? What do people need to know?
When word leaks that communications have been intercepted between then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and Russian government agents, but with no information about the content, reporters and editors work to put the puzzle together.
“If we had any details about what these calls were about or who was on them, that is a story. So we should get that,” Mazzetti tells his team. They make a list of more than 100 sources who might know something and start making calls in a tense scene reminiscent of “All the President’s Men,” but in this case the sources don’t bear fruit.
“We know there’s more out there,” Mazzetti tells Garbus, “but we don’t have hard data. It’s a process of making a gut decision about do we have it or not?” He decides to hold the story.
Hours later, the Washington Post breaks it, citing nine sources.
“No one has a monopoly on this,” Mazzetti says after losing the scoop. “We all are wary of our competition [and] trying to get at things the government doesn’t want us to get at. … There’s a lot of pressure. It’s very important to be first. But it’s more important to be right. I lose a lot of sleep over it.”
Garbus shows editors sweating over final edits. “How much time do we have?” one calls out. “Three minutes,” someone shouts back. Eyes return to the monitor as they debate which word best describes the squeeze facing Trump after then-FBI director James Comey’s disclosure that the president and his administration are part of the investigation into election meddling. A “fraught” political moment is replaced with “dire,” and then “treacherous.”
Garbus doesn’t stay in the building the whole time; she follows reporters on their beats and into their homes. Haberman, the Times’ gifted political reporter, is shown walking to a White House briefing as she reassures one of her children on the phone. “You can’t die in your nightmares. I promise,” she says before showing her badge to the guard.
A few scenes later she’s about to take a call from the president regarding the ACA bill failure. As she’s waiting, she asks colleagues to toss her questions. One wants to know whether the self-proclaimed dealmaker feels outplayed by Congress. Another steps up and with a straight face suggests asking Trump, “Do you think you would have had an easier time if you had more people at your inauguration?”
Such moments of levity in the newsroom are a welcome reprieve. These are just people at their jobs, after all.
Every day is different and not everything is a win; Mazzetti refers to a Times headline from Oct. 31, 2016, saying the FBI had found “no clear link” between Trump and the Russian government. Though the story itself was more nuanced, “It was a bad headline, and a lot of people read only the headline,” Mazzetti says. Many people felt it played into Trump’s hand and helped him win the election.
With great power comes great responsibility, and the staff takes that adage seriously. From the moment an editor clicks on “Publish” and the story enters the public sphere, it is widely cited, starts conversations and can even lead to changes at the highest levels of government.
“After Trump won, it was like a cyclone arrived,” says Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller (one of the few female leaders in a white male-dominated newsroom). “It’s exhausting, overwhelming, frustrating, maddening, but it’s just part of the job. This is a unique moment in American history. … I’m transfixed as an American citizen about what happens next.”
“The Fourth Estate” screens at 5:30 p.m. July 26 at the Castro and 4 p.m. Aug. 1 at the Albany Twin.