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Like many Americans, I wasn’t prepared for the outcome,” documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus, 47, says of Donald Trump’s election as president. “So I was trying to figure out ‘How do I respond?’ Nothing felt quite right.” Then, she happened to notice a Twitter dustup between the president-elect and one of his favorite betes noires, “the failing New York Times,” over a planned meeting. “And,” she recalls,” “I was like, ‘Wow, if I could only be a fly on the wall at that meeting.'”
Garbus — Oscar-nominated for films as different as the prison study The Farm: Angola, USA and the Nina Simone bio-doc What Happened, Miss Simone? — didn’t make it to that particular meeting, but through a friend, Jonathan Mahler, a writer at The New York Times Magazine, she was introduced to Sam Dolnick, an assistant managing editor for digital initiatives and a member of the Sulzberger family that controls the Times. She pitched Dolnick her idea of following Times reporters as they attempted to cover the first year of the Trump administration.
The result is The Fourth Estate, a four-part documentary series. Its first 90-minute episode will premiere as the closing night film at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 28, and then bow on Showtime on May 27. Watching it is like watching a modern-day version of All the President’s Men, if that classic about the dogged journalistic process were shot in real time. Garbus’ cameras are literally peering over reporters’ shoulders as they debate how to characterize the new president’s inaugural address, as they race to try to confirm a story about former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russians, only to lose the scoop to rival The Washington Post, and as Trump calls in to White House correspondent Maggie Haberman in the wake of Congress’ failure to kill the Affordable Care Act. During the 14-month shoot, Garbus was also on hand when the reporters collapsed from exhaustion as one hot story followed another.
Why did the Times give you such access?
The Times would have to say for themselves, but I think there was an understanding that it was going to be an extraordinary year. The president was attacking the press, and they really believed in the dignity of the process and thought it was time to show it. They didn’t impose limits on me and don’t have control of the story.
You had the approval of the Times itself, but then did you have to win over individual reporters?
The institution at the top gave its blessing, but they said it was up to us — my team, myself and my producers — to talk to individual reporters, and it was up to each person to decide what they wanted to do or not do. Some people at the beginning were pretty standoffish but then became very involved, like [reporter] Mike Schmidt, who you don’t see in the first episode. Then in the second, third and fourth episode, he’s a pretty big part. But it was up to us to go up to every reporter and make our case. Some were very used to media coverage and some of them aren’t.
There are moments when you are listening in as reporters talk by phone with confidential sources. Did you work out some signals so that you wouldn’t reveal those sources?
Oh, the signals weren’t always subtle. Sometimes, it was “Get out of here!” But also, if there was anything we captured that would have put a source at risk, we would delete on-site. And the reporters knew we were doing that. That was probably the only ground rule that they set — protection of sources.
As a documentary filmmaker, you practice a form of journalism. So was there anything about the Times reporters that surprised you?
Honestly, what we do as documentary filmmakers is so very, very different. I learned so much about how journalism works, and the way in which you can have information that’s explosive and that can lead to a big, big story and you have to hold on to it. You can’t put it in the newspaper until you have all your corroboration. When you see the way these guys work to source things and how much they don’t put in the newspaper until they can source it — especially in this environment in which the press is under attack — they have an extraordinary commitment to getting it right.
You also capture the way the reporter’s job is changing in the digital era.
Dean Baquet [the Times‘ executive editor] says it himself. When he was coming up in the newsroom, there was no expectation that you would talk about what happened today until it was in tomorrow’s newspapers. But now readers want to know what’s happening as it’s happening, and that places enormous burdens on reporters and editors. Reporters like Maggie Haberman and Michael Schmidt are out there doing television. It’s part of their jobs and an extension of the reach of The New York Times.
Did you consider interviewing Trump?
Had I been able to go with Maggie or Mike on one of their interviews with him, I would have gone with them to see it through their point of view. But he hasn’t given a lot of interviews since the Lester Holt interview [in May]; it’s mostly been with Fox. So that wasn’t going to happen, and it wasn’t the point of view of the film.
What is Trump’s impact on journalism?
When something is under attack, people stop taking it for granted. And it’s a White House that, to put it bluntly, lies a lot, so people are trying to sort out where to get good information. So people who appreciate the kind of diligence of news organizations like the Times or the Post or the [Wall Street] Journal are loving them more than ever.
This story first appeared in the April 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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