If you don’t trust the New York Times or the reporters who work there, Showtime’s four-part docu-series, The Fourth Estate, might not make you a full convert, but it could make you reconsider your perception of the paper and the journalists who work there. The series, which debuts at 7:30pm ET Sunday night, focuses on reporters Maggie Haberman, Michael Schmidt, Matt Rosenberg, Matt Apuzzo, Glenn Thrush, Elisabeth Bumiller, and others as they try to cover and keep up with the Trump administration’s chaotic first year in office while often seeing their efforts branded as “Fake News” by the President and his supporters.
Still, director Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone) tells Uproxx that she “hopes people who aren’t necessarily predisposed to read the New York Times and [who] might attack the New York Times will come to this to see how it’s done.” Garbus is a Times subscriber and not a regular Fox News viewer, but she says she’d be “really, really” interested in seeing a documentary that focused on Hannity and how producers “[go] about deciding what story to cover, how to cover it, what to say, and what words to use.”
After Trump was elected, Garbus says she was eager to use her voice as a filmmaker to “make sense of this new political climate.” And when she realized that, in the absence of Hillary Clinton, Trump was going to more frequently focus his ire on the media, The Fourth Estate started to come together and a pitch was made to the New York Times — “Trump’s hometown newspaper [and] one of the most important and largest news organizations in America.” That the paper of record allowed Garbus into their midst and gave her so much access to so many high-profile staffers was a surprise to the Oscar-nominated documentarian, who says she thought she had a 1-in-100 chance of getting a yes.
“The Times realized that it was going to be a volatile year, that they were gonna be under the microscope and under attack, and that they were pretty proud of their journalists. So they felt like maybe this was not such a bad idea,” said Garbus.
Still, there were ground rules. Some common sense ones set up by the Times included a prohibition on revealing the identities of sources, and some self-imposed ones like trying to keep a low profile in the newsroom while filming for about 150 days across 16 months.
“We were definitely one more thing for people to have to deal with in an incredibly stressful environment, so we tried to keep our footprint low,” said Garbus. “It would be the director, a camera person, and a sound person. That would be the entire crew. Sometimes we had two crews — in Washington and New York.”
Garbus also respected the privacy of her subjects, reporters who were being put in the unique position of being asked to provide ample access to themselves when hate mail and violent rhetoric are commonplace. Though, as Garbus rightly points out, that’s not necessarily unique to the Trump era, even though the “climate is extremely charged and probably more volatile.” In the series, you can see family pictures blurred out on one reporter’s desk while others (but not all) kept their families off-camera — evidence of the needed balance between trying to humanize these reporters and keeping them safe.
While 16 months is a long time to focus one’s lens, allowing Garbus and her team to accumulate 500-600 hours worth of footage, the filmmaker says she’d be interested in revisiting the subject down the road. After all, it’s not like Trump and the press have reached or will reach a detente. But she’s not sure if the reporters would welcome another year in the fish bowl. “I think it would be hard for the journalists. I mean, they have to beat their competition, appear on television, be smart on Twitter… so many demands on them and we were one more.”
New York Times Washington correspondent Michael Schmidt was apprehensive about the documentary at the start and didn’t agree to being on-camera until a few months into filming. It’s why he’s not seen in the first episode. “I was sort of unsure and skeptical about it and thought that there was only downside,” Schmidt told Uproxx. Eventually, however, Schmidt warmed. “I came around to the perspective about how important [the documentary] was and that these people were going to fairly tell our story.”
What is that story? It’s not a quest for love or stardom. It’s not even a fight to win trust from people who see only bias and lies when they think about the New York Times. Right now it’s about showing the work and reinforcing the definition of journalism for all parties.
“I would hope that people would understand how hard we try to be fair and to get it right and the amount of work and time and effort and energy and blood, sweat, and tears that goes into it,” says Schmidt. “We’re here to follow the facts and take them wherever they go regardless of who they help or hurt.”
That’s an important story and one well told by Garbus’ team with The Fourth Estate. It’s also one that might cause a few people to, ever so slightly, reconsider their view of the New York Times and the press.
The Fourth Estate premieres Sunday at 7:30PM on Showtime.