“It just never stops,” says one person. “It’s such crazypants bullshit,” another opines. A third sums up something anyone in this country could’ve said in the past year, when it comes to following the current vein of politics in America: “You get tired of saying ‘holy shit,’ because you’d be saying it every three hours.”
These are all quotes from journalists at The New York Times when discussing various aspects of reporting on the Trump administration, as detailed in Showtime’s fast-paced new documentary series The Fourth Estate. The overall impression is not that far off from what a stereotypical view of the modern newsroom might consist of: people racing from story to story, surviving on caffeine, trying desperately to keep up with the flood of news developments while sacrificing what little they may have in the form of family or free time. As director Liz Garbus trains her camera on the people behind the bylines, watching them strain to move ever faster—finding the right source, the right headline, the superior angle for a narrative—she provides an exhilarating look into the workings of one of the biggest and most esteemed newspapers on the planet. If it occasionally tips over into hagiography, suggesting that this is a pure and noble band of freedom fighters and anyone criticizing them just doesn’t get it, well, spend a year embedded within the walls of the intrepid yet beleaguered institution, and the rose-tinted glasses start to resemble the shared perspective of trauma survivors.
Indeed, one of the most noteworthy aspects of the series lies in depicting just how a journalistic outlet gets pushed into an ostensibly partisan position, just because the current president has a vendetta. Sure, the “liberal media” tag has been around for decades at this point, but it was never seen in quite the adversarial light now being cast upon it, thanks to daily denunciations of “fake news” from a president (and increasingly, an entire political party) who continues to hope that saying something enough times will make it true. From a Times reporter getting locked out of a White House briefing to the vitriol hurled in the media’s direction by the wild-eyed attendees of the president’s rallies, the omnipresent feeling of being under the gun, threatened and discredited by the very people being covered, suffuses the series as much as the newsroom it watches.
Essentially a year in the life of the paper’s political reporters, with occasional diversions into other stories (Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein), the documentary follows the New York office and Washington bureau of the Grey Lady as its journalists and editors attempt to do their jobs while in the maelstrom of one of the most chaotic and unpredictable presidencies in recent history. Executive editor Dean Baquet serves as a sort of Greek chorus, providing background information and weighing in on the overall difficulties and day-to-day operations of the paper from episode to episode. The rest of the time is consumed largely with the boots-on-the-ground journalists, the ones who spend most of their days glued to a screen or a phone (and the seemingly nonstop commutes in between), steadily chipping away at what lies beneath the surface of each new political situation, bringing each and every nugget of news into the light of day as a source goes on record or a document gets leaked.
Dozens of journalists are filmed for the series, but a regular cast of characters makes up the core group of correspondents and editors that serve as our unofficial guides to the life of a political journalist in the era of Trump. Elisabeth Bumiller, chief of the Washington bureau since 2015, plays a starring and perpetually frustrated role (“Fuck that, I’m not talking to them,” she growls at one point, after learning the New York office has changed the lede of her team’s story and wants to check in with her about it), overseeing the D.C. affairs with a constant sense of exhaustion. Maggie Haberman (who’s been covering Trump since her tabloid days), Mike Schmidt, Glenn Thrush, Jim Rutenberg, and a small revolving door of other correspondents make up the bulk of the material, as they’re the ones running point on the White House—the lion’s share of the paper’s attention, for obvious reasons. “What’s the best way of getting truthful information out of the White House?” someone asks with deadly serious intent in the second episode, and the ensuing laughter is less out of pleasure than pain.
A big takeaway is how much harder the job of journalist is in 2018 than it was even 10 to 15 years earlier. Having time to research and develop a story is a luxury these people are not often afforded—despite the Times being one of the increasingly rare institutions capable of performing such journalism, as Thrush notes. (At one point Haberman is asked to justify why she tweeted out a quote Trump gave her before the related story was even published, and she counters that she had to get it out there before the president said it again to someone else.) There are constant debates about how quickly they can hit publish on stories, how much damage a bad headline can do, and the eternal push and pull between being first and making sure you’re right. (The competition for scoops between the Times and The Washington Post is fierce, and no one considers it a “friendly” rivalry.) The show periodically details what little home life these people have, with Haberman taking FaceTime calls from the kids she rarely sees and Schmidt discussing his utter lack of a social life. Bumiller takes her dog for a walk at one point, and it’s almost startling. They’re all so aware this era may be the most significant work they ever do, and it’s taking a toll.
Still, for all the swearing and understandable frustration—they run a story, the White House falsely denies it, they prove more of it, the White House walks back its lie, they prove more, the White House pivots to a new falsehood, and on and on in an unending grind—it would’ve been nice to get at more of the tumult, contradictions, and messy realities of the paper and its people. A second-episode finale that sees a walkout over Baquet’s decision to fire a significant number of copy desk staff and editors is revealing, as is an episode three outing that finds Yamiche Alcindor pointing out the surprisingly few number of black reporters on staff—especially black women like herself. But the constant focus on fighting the good fight in the face of an administration literally inciting violence against these people means the insular nature of D.C. political journalism—and its often cozy relationship with sources—is elided entirely. In light of Haberman and others parroting the bullshit “Michelle Wolf demeaned Sanders for her looks” groupthink following the White House Correspondents dinner (and her radio silence on the justifiable blowback), it would’ve been insightful to see a doc that gave some indication of how the pack mentality functions. It’s not surprising Garbus stuck with juicier material, but it comes at the cost of a richer portrait.
Regardless of its flaws, The Fourth Estate is the equivalent of mainlining pure political-news heroin, a fascinating fly-on-the-wall look at the frantic and unenviable lifestyle of those genuinely doing their best to provide honest and aggressive journalism in the face of a government intent on muzzling it. There’s a great moment in episode two when James Comey publicly says a certain Times story is “mostly false,” and the room slowly goes bananas trying to uncover what part of their story is inaccurate. (After checking with sources, it’s determined that none of it is, making the hard struggle against the “fake news” attacks all too plain.) It’s too bad Garbus doesn’t have her cameras installed there 24-7—that’s a version of Big Brother-style reality TV we could use more of in the ongoing fight to defend and validate the media in this disturbing post-truth era.