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A surprising development occurs toward the end of Liz Garbus‘ documentary providing a fly-on-the-wall perspective of The New York Times‘ coverage of the Trump administration. A reporter is seen dealing with the revelation of the Bill O’Reilly sexual harassment scandal, and you suddenly ask yourself, “Wait, there were other things going on in the world as well?” Receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, The Fourth Estate, the opening installment of a multi-part Showtime series premiering May 27, will prove equally satisfying to media and political junkies. Which these days are pretty much one and the same.
Normally, a documentary about a newspaper’s coverage of the opening months of a new presidential administration would be a fairly dry affair. The film would cover the inevitable speeches, outreaches to Congress, attempts to pass legislation and meetings with foreign leaders. Garbus obviously guessed that things would be very different in a Trump administration and she was right. The breathless pacing of the bizarre and scandalous events covered by the dogged reporters and editors in the documentary makes one nostalgic for the days of clandestine meetings in parking garages and poorly executed cover-ups.
The episode titled The First 100 Days begins with people in the newsroom watching the inauguration. “It was really dark, don’t you think?” asks Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller about Trump’s nihilistic speech. “I think it’s going to be a huge test for us in a lot of ways,” comments executive editor Dean Baquet about the travails to come. Little did he then know then how much of an understatement that would turn out to be.
Besides Bumiller and Baquet, one of the film’s stars is reporter Maggie Haberman, who has had the fortune (or misfortune, depending on how you look at it) of covering Donald Trump for 20 years. “Trump was a quote you’d try to get because he’d always juice up a story,” she comments about her time writing about him when he was a mere real-estate developer. The film makes clear the tremendous personal toll the job takes on her home life, such as when she comforts one of her children over the telephone about a nightmare. In one of the documentary’s highlights, Haberman is seen talking a phone call from Trump in the immediate aftermath of the defeat of the House bill attempting to repeal Obamacare. After the call is over, another reporter rushes over to her and says that while she was talking to Trump, he was texting with a White House official who made a statement contradicting Trump that could be used off the record. After the two reporters laugh about it and Haberman starts writing the story, she asks, “Does anyone else feel like I’m having a stroke?”
An inevitable air of déjà vu accompanies the proceeding as we watch the newsroom grapple with such stories as Trump’s Supreme Court pick, the Michael Flynn resignation, his first speech to Congress and James Comey’s congressional testimony, among others. But the events are obviously seen from a different perspective here, such as when the paper is scooped by The Washington Post on the story of Flynn’s communications with the Russian ambassador. Bumuller scoffs at the notion that she should relish the competition. “I hate it!” she says, not entirely kidding. The Times soon retaliates with its own scoop about Trump’s campaign aides’ repeated contacts with Russian intelligence figures that lands investigative reporter Mark Mazzetti a guest appearance on The Daily Show.
Dutiful mention is made of the problems facing print media in the internet era. We see office space at the paper’s Manhattan headquarters being reduced to save money. A.G. Sulzberger, the deputy publisher, puts on a brave face. “We’re not driven by clicks,” he says. “We think in decades.”
Besides financial woes, the paper is plagued by a president who declares the press to be “the enemy of the people.” Not long after, White House correspondent Glenn Thrush, along with reporters from several other outlets, is denied access to an open press briefing, with the editors seen puzzling over exactly how to respond.
The struggle for editorial dominance between the paper’s New York and Washington offices is illustrated by an episode during the coverage of Trump’s congressional speech. Bumiller and her reporters craft a story leading with Trump’s apparent new policy toward immigration, but it’s rewritten by the home office which prefers to emphasize his statement about ending “trivial fights.” Bumiller is stunned by the revision and refuses to come to the phone to discuss the matter. “I have nothing to say,” she announces, shaking her head.
It’s these priceless backstage moments, not the by-now familiar political stories, that give The Fourth Estate its lasting value and will make it mandatory viewing for journalism students. As with all strong openers to an episodic series, it ends with a cliffhanger. Trump is seen officiating over the White House Easter Egg Roll as a reporter types the words “possible collusion.” Can’t wait to see how it all turns out.
Production companies: Showtime Documentary Films, Moxie Firecracker Films, RadicalMedia
Director-executive producer: Liz Garbus
Producers: Liz Garber, Jenny Carchman, Justin Wilkes
Directors of photography: Wolfgang Held, Thorsten Thielow
Editors; Matthew Hamachek, Daniel Koehler, Jawad Metni, Joshua L. Pearson, Karen K.H. Im
Composer: H. Scott Salinas
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Gala)
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