It began innocently enough. After running a divisive campaign rooted in xenophobia, memes and puerile nicknames, President-elect Donald Trump visited the headquarters of The New York Times for a chummy, wide-ranging discussion with its team of editors and reporters on his surprise election victory and plans for America. Trump, flanked by his future chief of staff Reince Priebus and cable-news pugilist Kellyanne Conway, opened the pow-wow by offering an olive branch to the men and women he’d not-so-affectionately branded “fake news.”
“Well, I just appreciate the meeting and I have great respect for The New York Times. Tremendous respect. It’s very special. Always has been very special. I think I’ve been treated very rough,” offered Trump. “I’d like to turn it around.”
The singular awkwardness of that meeting gave filmmaker Liz Garbus, the Oscar-nominated documentarian behind What Happened Miss Simone?, an idea: “Gosh, to be a fly on the wall of that meeting…Do you think that could ever happen?” She contacted a friend at The New York Times Magazine and soon found herself pitching editor-in-chief Dean Baquet on a behind-the-scenes look at The Gray Lady’s coverage of The Donald. With Trump regularly berating the Times and attempting to undermine its mission, both the paper and Garbus felt it important to offer a humanizing portrait of their reporting staff, as well as demystify their process. The result is The Fourth Estate, a four-part docuseries currently airing on Showtime.
Its first two episodes covered not only the growing hostility between President Trump and the press, with Trump branding the media “the enemy of the people,” but the turmoil inside the White House, with several top administration officials being shown the door over various improprieties and, following the firing of FBI Director James Comey by President Trump, the appointment of a special counsel in Robert Mueller to further investigate the complex web of associations between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
According to Garbus, the first day of filming was the day of Trump’s inauguration, January 20, 2017, and the last day was April 16, 2018, for the announcement of the Pulitzer Prizes, with the Times honored for both its coverage of Trump and the Russians as well as its work exposing sexual harassment—including breaking the Harvey Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly stories. Garbus operated with two small screws of three people—a director, sound person, and camera person—filming primarily at its headquarters in New York and Washington Bureau in D.C., but also taking audiences on the road with reporters and, in some cases, inside their homes. One of the most memorable moments comes early on in the series, with the paper’s star Trump reporter, Maggie Haberman, repeatedly reassuring her anxious child by phone, “You can’t die in your nightmares, sweetie.”
Overall, Garbus and co. ended up filming for 150 days, amassing approximately 600 hours of footage. “You really wanted to be there when a character you were following was breaking a story, so we had to be around a lot,” she says. Given the highly sensitive nature of what she was filming, with reporters regularly speaking with confidential sources, she assures me that the Times “didn’t have final cut, creative input or creative control on the project.” What they had, she says, “was a guarantee that we wouldn’t reveal any confidential sources and the right to review footage to make sure that wasn’t happening.” When I ask if there are, perhaps, backup discs laying around somewhere with loads of confidential information on it, she dismisses it immediately with, “There’s nothing out there.”
That’s not to say that Garbus and her crew didn’t ever butt heads with their hard-working, little-sleeping, highly-caffeinated subjects. “There were tense moments where the journalists felt, I need to be able to say what I want and not worry that it’ll be totally wrong and it’ll go on TV and I’ll look like a moron. But that happens in any documentary. So as a documentarian, you just have to know when to push and when to give people space,” she explains.
One thing that Garbus’ series does do is dispel some of the myths—OK, lies—that President Trump regularly tells about the Times. For example, on March 11 and April 21, the president called out Times reporter Maggie Haberman by name, tweeting that she “is not given access” and is someone “I don’t speak to,” when on the show we clearly hear Haberman speaking with Trump by phone, his unmistakable voice emanating from the other end of the line. “Yeah, who knows what he even meant by that,” Garbus says of the tweets. “I guess we’re not supposed to take his language literally and to take it metaphorically, or something like that?”
The tension in The Fourth Estate—already ramped up thanks to its incredibly ominous score, courtesy of The Social Network’s Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross—reaches a fever pitch in Episode 3, airing June 10. It covers the newsroom’s shocked reactions to President Trump’s “on many sides” defense of neo-Nazis in the wake of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville; his rant against “the failing New York Times” at a charged rally in Phoenix, with his supporters spewing bile at the Times’ writer in the press pen; and Robert Mueller’s indictments of Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, with the latter pleading guilty to making false statements and conspiracy against the U.S. In addition to the tireless Haberman, the “stars” of the doc include Mark Mazzetti, the Tom Cruise-ish Washington Investigations Editor, and Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller, who apparently lives at the office.
We also see a Times reporter sit down with Steve Bannon at the “Breitbart Embassy” in D.C. following his ouster from the White House, with the two—despite Bannon’s regular media-bashing—appearing rather buddy-buddy, recounting how they’ve known each other for years dating back to his documentary-filmmaking days. “We wrote a letter asking if we could tag along, and he agreed,” Garbus says of filming in Bannon’s home. “The man likes the press, despite everything he says.”
“Steve Bannon is an interesting dude,” she continues. “You’ll see more of this in Episode 4, but he’ll be going around saying ‘the media is the enemy of the people’ while riding around in an SUV with members of the mainstream media in the back of his car. He’s a really good example of how this whole ‘we hate he media’ thing is basically just a big ruse. You can see it from Steve Bannon’s interactions with journalists. He doesn’t think they’re liars or these devil-horned people, and he gives them a lot of their information.”
Episode 3 presents the Times’ investigative team of Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey breaking the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment story, a strange development for Garbus seeing as one of her first jobs in film was as an intern at the Weinstein-owned Miramax—for six weeks. “It was a terrible internship, I didn’t have a chair to sit down on, and one of my experiences was to change the extension list because people were constantly being moved around,” she recalls. Towards the end of Episode 3, during an onstage Q&A, Haberman draws a line between the then-burgeoning #MeToo movement and the election of Donald Trump. “I really agree with Maggie that it came out of the rage and helplessness a lot of people felt after somebody who’s talked that way about women, and allegedly behaved that way around many women, could be elected,” says Garbus. “That made people emboldened to speak out. It goes hand-in-hand with the Trump coverage.”
The episode also has White House correspondent Glenn Thrush be reprimanded for firing off a tweet critical of President Trump. “He can’t control himself,” an editor angrily says of Thrush. It’s a clever bit of foreshadowing by Garbus, including Thrush’s control issues in an episode that also focuses on the breaking of the Weinstein story, considering how sexual misconduct allegations were levied against Thrush in a story published in Vox last November. Thrush was ultimately suspended while the Times conducted an internal investigation of the accusations.
After two months, Baquet issued the following statement: “We have completed our investigation into Glenn Thrush’s behavior, which included dozens of interviews with people both inside and outside the newsroom. We found that Glenn has behaved in ways that we do not condone. While we believe that Glenn has acted offensively, we have decided that he does not deserve to be fired. Instead, we have suspended him for two months and removed him from the White House beat. He will receive training designed to improve his workplace conduct. In addition, Glenn is undergoing counseling and substance abuse rehabilitation on his own. We will reinstate him as a reporter on a new beat upon his return.”
Some saw the Times’ move as hypocritical—after all, this was the paper that ultimately won a Pulitzer for breaking the Weinstein story—and Garbus says that the series indeed explores the Thrush controversy in Episode 4. “We do deal with what happened with the Vox article and Glenn Thrush, and the Times’ response to it. That’s getting addressed,” she says.
When I ask her if she feels conflicted about including him in the series in light of the allegations, she pauses. “Did I feel conflicted about including him? I didn’t, actually. He was a reporter who we had spent time with, he was certainly open about some of the challenges he was experiencing—particularly on Twitter, which was indicative of his impulsivity—so I felt like he was a character who we had followed, and what happened with him and Vox and the allegations of misconduct against young female journalists was also part of a conversation that was started at The New York Times by its Weinstein reporting, so it made a lot of sense to address it.”
Garbus would like Trump and his loyal supporters to watch The Fourth Estate and “see how the sausage is made.” Perhaps it may curb their suspicions of the paper of record. And as far as a second season goes: “I’ve definitely not gotten my fix. I’m way too obsessed with every decibel of this news cycle. I think there are some different directions we can go in, so stay tuned. Hopefully we’ll figure that out soon.”
Mostly, however, Garbus wants viewers to watch the show and come away with an appreciation for these top-flight journalists, who put in long hours—often at the expense of their friends and family—in order to ensure an informed republic.
“They’re human. They’re hardworking folks who are working late nights while figuring out how to get their kids from one place to another when they’re extremely busy,” she says. “The truth about life is it’s not very glamorous in any of these institutions that seem to be vaunted or hated as ‘elitist.’ And the professionalism. They get tips and info all the time, and their ability to wade through the bullshit is impressive.”