The story behind the new documentary series for Showtime, The Fourth Estate, begins in January 2017 with the staff of The New York Times in crisis. Not only is the nation in turmoil under its new President, but the venerable newspaper itself – an American institution – must deal with the aftermath of having flubbed two of the biggest stories since Watergate.
During the 2016 Presidential election, the newspaper routinely dismissed Donald Trump as a viable candidate. Worse, once he was selected as the Republican nominee, it also double-downed by offering its own polling analytics as proof that Hillary Clinton would be the sure winner by a substantial margin.
If all that weren’t bad enough, it also was blindsided by the whole Russian web of intrigue, its influence on the Presidential election, and its collusion with executives of Trump’s campaign and possibly even the future President himself. A headline from an article it published on the eve of the election — “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia – says it all. (Ooops!)
With this as the backdrop, Oscar-nominated director Liz Garbus’ cinema-verite documentary follows two teams of the newspaper’s reporters – one assigned to cover the Trump presidency’s first 100 days and another focused on the rapidly emerging Russian scandal. With new revelations and twists-and-turns emerging virtually every day, there is an inherent excitement that keeps the viewers engaged.
We also get a glimpse into the personal side of the reporters, a reminder that these warriors of a free press are, in fact, not soldiers at all and have private lives that often conflict with a work schedule that is, essentially, 24 hours. As New York Times editor-in-chief Dean Baquet points out in the film, forget about the 24-hour news cycle. Readers now expect their news in real time.
In one memorable scene, White House reporter Maggie Haberman is seen interviewing President Trump on the phone about the collapse of his first major piece of legislation, the repeal of Obamacare. Moments later, before she really even has time to gather her thoughts much less begin writing the story, she is tweeting highlights of the interview.
Haberman herself is the most interesting of the reporters featured in the film, fascinating because of her frank analysis of Trump’s personality (she says that for Trump “rules and laws are obstacles to be moved”), but also because of her background. She more or less stumbled into one of the most coveted positions at The New York Times, White House correspondent.
Because she had covered Trump over two decades as a reporter on the New York commercial-real-estate beat, when it came time for the newspaper to grudgingly assign someone to cover Trump as one of 17 Republican candidates for President, Haberman was given the nod. In effect, when Trump won the White House, so did she.
The optics of Haberman being the only woman Times reporter interviewed for the film is not lost on the viewer. And while editor Baquet is African-American, he is the only person of color from the Times who appears in the film.
In fact, when the camera enters a conference room in the newspaper’s headquarters for the first meeting of the paper’s newly assembled Russian investigative unit, it’s all white men. The demographics aren’t reflective of the nation as a whole but especially not its home base in multicultural New York City.
The first episode of the series, which premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, airs for the first time on Showtime on May 27. At least three additional episodes, each covering 100 days in the Trump presidency, are planned.
During the film festival, we caught up the film’s producers Jenny Carchman, who produced The Long Strange Trip, the Grateful Dead biopic for Amazon, and Justin Wilkes, who worked with Garbus on the documentary about singer-activist Nina Simone, What Happened, Miss Simone.
Monsters & Critics: Why was it important to make this film now?
Justin: It’s a time when the very basic bastion of journalism is being challenged, by the President of the United State no less. So, it’s important to get the story right. When a term like fake news is being widely adopted, it’s important to shine a light on a group of people who have dedicated themselves to telling the truth.
M&C: The film opens with the acknowledgement of two glaring failures by the Times leading up to the 2016 Presidential election: “Misreading the pulse of the country” as editor Dean Baquet says on camera, as well as the whole Russian scandal. Did you get the sense that the Times editorial were aware of those failures?
Jenny: Virtually everyone got the election wrong. But the Times itself acknowledging it had really got the election wrong was the first step in how to cover the new President. In terms of the Russians, I think the Times ran out of time.
M&C: Despite his frequent, public excoriation of The New York Times, Trump seems obsessed with the newspaper. Why do think that is?
Jenny: Maggie Haberman has a whole theory about it. Trump always wanted to be part of the elite of New York City. But he was an Outer Burroughs guy who was never really accepted by the Manhattanites. The pinnacle of this Manhattan elite is The New York Times — it’s not an Outer Burroughs newspaper.
For Trump, it was a matter of being accepted as relevant and competing in their world. Maggie covered him as a real estate dealmaker first at the (New York) Daily News and then later at the Times. So, it was hilarious when she wrote about Michael Cohen for the Times in April, Trump tweeted that he didn’t know Maggie.
M&C: What were the challenges of doing a documentary about a story that is, quite literally, still being written?
Justin: Often, a documentary tells a story of something that happened in the past, so you have the benefit of archival materials. Our story was happening in real time, and because the story was happening both in New York and D.C., we had to have infrastructure in both places.
We had to mobilize our crews on the ground to pivot as the story was unfolding, for example, with the firing of FBI director James Comey. Sometimes, we were lucky to catch a break like when the Pulitzer Prize went to the team at the Times for their coverage of the Russian investigation. It was the perfect ending for the show’s first season.
The Fourth Estate premieres this Sunday, May 27, at 8pm ET/PT on Showtime.