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For its closing night screening, the Tribeca Film Festival hosted the world premiere of Liz Garbus‘ new documentary series, The Fourth Estate, which follows The New York Times as its reporters and editors cover the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency.
The festival may have been winding down Saturday night — and Trump himself was speaking at a rally in Michigan while many political staffers and reporters were attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington, D.C. — but in New York, De Niro was still full of rage at the president as he also expressed support for “legitimate journalists everywhere who devote themselves to showing us the truth.”
The festival co-founder, who has been a vocal critic of the current president, mocked Trump for taking credit for the phrase “fake news,” saying, with a slight Trump impression, “One of the greatest terms I’ve come up with.”
But he warned that Trump’s “bellowing bullshit about fake news” could be far more dangerous as the phrase has become “a favorite rallying cry for dictators and strongmen” around the world and reflected a more insidious disregard for the truth.
“I’m not so much concerned about Republicans believing Trump’s bellowing bullshit about fake news. They’re not that stupid, most of them, but they’re pretty fucking stupid,” De Niro said before the festival screened the first episode of Garbus‘ series. “I’m very concerned about Republicans’ gutless acquiescence to Trump dismissing facts and creating his own alternate reality. This will never, never be right. That’s why I’m very grateful to the journalists we’re about to see and legitimate journalists everywhere who devote themselves to showing us the truth.”
Indeed, Garbus‘ documentary follows the Times reporters and editors in their battle to uncover the real news as Trump wages war against the media, particularly what he calls “the failing New York Times.”
“It’s a funny thing about calling something ‘fake news’ just because you don’t like it. It’s still news, and when it’s the truth, it’s the truth. And when it exposes you as a liar, a scam artist and a criminal, that so-called fake news can lead you to doing real time,” De Niro said.
He then reiterated what he’d previously said about his latest role as Robert Mueller on Saturday Night Live: “I hope I get to do that on Saturday Night Live: Depose him, interview him, interrogate him, whatever you want to call it, and then I want to put him in handcuffs and take him to jail.”
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter on the red carpet prior to the screening, Garbus agreed that Trump’s use of phrases like “fake news” and “the failing New York Times” and calling various media outlets “the enemy of the American people” is “really dangerous.”
“I think that those ideas are starting to take hold and people are starting to disbelieve things that many people confirm as factual,” she said. “I think it’s a strategy that if you can undermine the truth, you can kind of get away with anything.”
After the screening, Ann Curry moderated a discussion with Garbus, producer Jenny Carchman and some of the film’s subjects: New York Times editors Dean Baquet and Elisabeth Bumiller and reporters Mark Mazzetti and Julie Hirschfeld Davis. During the roughly 45-minute discussion, the team from the Times talked about their decision to let Garbus and her cameras invade their newsroom and the challenges of covering the current, relentless political news cycle and trying to nail down what’s true amid the chaos.
As for why Baquet let Garbus and her crew film their coverage of Trump’s presidency, he said, “I thought that the best way to combat the attacks on the press was to be transparent. I thought that if people saw what [White House correspondent] Maggie Haberman’s life is like, if people saw what Elisabeth Bumiller’s efforts to get at the truth were like, I thought that people would understand that the allegations and the attacks from the president were false. I thought that if people got a look inside the New York Times newsroom, they would of course see warts because newsrooms have warts; they’re imperfect institutions. But I also thought that they would see something more important — there’s a lot of people working hard to cover a big story and to fulfill a mission unselfishly and I thought that was worth the price of admission.”
He later said that he hoped people watching the series would realize the pains taken “to be fair.”
“What I hope that people take away from this is that we work really, really hard to be fair, that we do not run around with anti-Trump signs on our desks, that our job is not to be the opposition but to cover him aggressively and fairly,” Baquet explained.
When asked by THR if she wanted Trump to see the series, Garbus laughed and explained what he would see if he did.
“I think that if people in the White House watch the [series], I think they’ll see the seriousness and the professionalism of the journalists who work at the New York Times,” she said.
As a condition of filming, Garbus and Co. agreed to protect their subjects’ sources, deleting on-site names, gender pronouns and places connected to secret sources of information.
The Times journalists also spoke about how covering the current administration is different from reporting on previous ones, including the challenge to nail down the truth amid mixed messages from the administration and the president himself.
“In most White Houses there’s a huge premium that’s put on message discipline. You’re rarely going to get the president and senior staff person saying two totally different things about a policy issue, about whether somebody is in the good graces or not in the good graces of the president,” Davis said. “In this White House, that happens on a daily, on an hourly, basis. This president will change his mind. He’ll say something different to one person than another. He’ll go with what the last person who talked to him told him. And a story can change 180 degrees.… It makes it that much more difficult to be right.”
Bumiller later said, in response to a question about leaks, “This is a really leaky administration.… In terms of just government, White House and administration, leaks, it’s extraordinary. There’s a permanent bureaucracy in Washington that is leaking about Trump, and there is infighting in the White House and they’re leaking about each other. In that sense, there’s a lot out there.”
She also marveled at the seemingly never-ending breakneck pace of the political news cycle.
“It is just relentless,” she said. “My first day in the Washington bureau as a White House reporter was September 10, 2001. That was intense but this just never, ever stops. It just goes and goes and goes. Stories roll along sometimes literally every hour and a half. It goes all weekend. That’s the difference. In the old days in the bureau, we would have just a week or two of some intense story of a new Supreme Court justice or a terror attack and then it would die down and there would be a lull. That’s just the way the news went and it has not stopped in the last year and a half.”
Baquet said of the unprecedented nature of the Trump era, “It’s a monumental shift in American politics. I don’t think we know if it lasts for four years or eight years or completely changes the political dynamic in the country. I think that remains to be seen. But I think it’s the perfect story to have landed at a moment when the media has changed dramatically. It was almost like the technological advances that have made the media better, even though they may make people uncomfortable sometimes combined with the sheer size of the story just makes for a historic moment in journalism.”
Davis echoed that assessment while reflecting the emotions felt by those covering the daily, sometimes hourly, developments.
“This is a presidency and an administration like none of us have ever seen. It’s difficult to keep perspective in that environment, but it’s really important to try to figure out ways to tell that story that are not just all of us agape with our jaws on the floor all the time but trying to explain what’s happening and to the degree we can why it’s happening and what’s in the minds of the president and the people around him as it’s happening because that’s really the best that we can do,” she said. “The risk is that you make it all seem normal and it’s not at all normal, but we have to figure out a way to tell the story that explains the significance that is in some way understandable.”
The four-part series, The Fourth Estate, will premiere on Showtime on May 27.
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