New docuseries ‘The Fourth Estate’ puts ‘New York Times’ challenges covering Trump front and center
In March 2017, New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman took some heat online after tweeting that President Donald Trump “showed uncharacteristic discipline” during an unexpected interview he sat for with the newspaper.
“I think you’re drinking the Kool-Aid,” Twitter user Pam Matthews tweeted to the star reporter, who read the response as she sat in a car, scrolling through Twitter on her smartphone. That same night, Haberman had taken cordial but pointed questions from CNN anchor Anderson Cooper regarding the sit-down with the president. “My God. What are you, his publicist?” another Twitter user added, questioning the nature of Haberman’s professional relationship with the much-maligned commander in chief.
The moment is a key scene in The Fourth Estate, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus’ (What Happened, Miss Simone?) behind-the-scenes look at the paper of record during the first year of Trump’s presidency. The incident embodied one of the Showtime docuseries’ primary themes: the struggle of reporters covering a polarizing president in polarizing times.
In another key moment toward the beginning of the four-part series, Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet underscores the dilemma the paper faced as Trump reshaped the norms of politics and reporting.
“We have a left that doesn’t want to hear what the other side has to say, and we have a right that feels the same way,” Baquet said the day Trump was inaugurated.
Trump, his supporters and even some progressives have indeed made the liberal-leaning Times a primary target amid a national media landscape under fire for its reporting on an atypical president. The Fourth Estate characterizes journalists as the guardians of a living, breathing democracy — guardians the Trump White House has attacked and marginalized like no other president since Richard Nixon.
“There has been this remarkably effective propaganda campaign from the president and his supporters,” Garbus said in a recent phone interview. “When the media prints things that Trump finds unfavorable, he attacks the media. He has successfully created an environment where the public feel that reporters are trying to undermine a free election. It’s been a very successful campaign.”
The president’s wins on this front are on full display in Garbus’ series. At one point, Times politics reporter Jeremy W. Peters can’t help but grimace while covering Trump’s speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, where the president told his conservative followers the media was the “enemy of the people.”
Peters is later seen questioning a CPAC attendee about the “chaos and confusion” in the Trump White House.
“There’s not confusion and chaos except as felt by the five enemies,” the attendee tells Peters. “Who are the five?” Peters asks.
“You all,” the unidentified man responds. “ABC, NBC, CBS, Washington Post, New York Times.”
Peters explains that in his beat, he’s responsible for covering conservatives. In a voiceover, he further discusses the struggle of analyzing Trump’s America without amplifying the bigotry and misinformation in which the president’s die-hard followers often revel, in what he calls the “other America.”
“You can’t wander into the other America as this anthropologist type who is suddenly discovering there are people out there who think differently than you do,” Peters says. “But at the same time, you can’t just hand the microphone over to them either.”
Episode one of The Fourth Estate details the first 100 days of Trump’s term — most notably his inauguration, the GOP’s failed attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the opening chapter of the Russia investigation, then led by former FBI director James Comey.
As the series unfolds, there’s an in-depth look at the personal and professional lives of some of the Times’ top staffers as they navigate covering a White House making the unprecedented move of barring reporters from press briefings. They’re seen expressing frustration when headlines are misconstrued; we watch their indecision in choosing adjectives to describe the administration’s increasingly unconventional behavior amid the exhausting pace of the Trump era’s relentless news cycle.
It’s easy to get sucked into the series’ dramatic political theater, just as a record amount of cable news viewers and online news junkies have in real time since Trump first launched his White House bid nearly three years ago.
That ability to suck viewers and readers into this presidential narrative is the strength of both the Times and The Fourth Estate. However, both share the same weakness. The series’ first episode plays into the same narrative for which the Times has been frequently criticized, sometimes unfairly: normalizing what some see as extreme points of view.
“There’s been a lot of unhappiness from the left when the Times turned over their editorial page to Trump supporters,” Garbus said. “You can be angry at the Times for not understanding the electorate in 2016, and then you’re also angry at the Times for talking to people who supported Trump. You can’t really have it both ways.”
In the end, the series excels in outlining the challenges of journalism in today’s political climate, even though it may commit some of the same perceived sins as the enterprise it examines.
The Times has previously criticized itself for its lack of diversity, and unfortunately, The Fourth Estate almost completely ignores the marginalized communities most affected by Trump’s policies. The series’ first episode spends only a few minutes unpacking the highly dramatized implementation of Trump’s Muslim travel ban, one of the major narratives from his first months in office. The president’s transgender military ban and ramped-up immigration raids are never discussed; his endorsement of police brutality, controversial comments the alt-right and antifa, and moves to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program aren’t mentioned until episode three and only serve as a backdrop for the Times’ coverage of the president.
Baquet certainly isn’t the only person of color working at the Times, but you wouldn’t know that by watching The Fourth Estate. White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor doesn’t appear on screen until episode three, when she notes she’s “one of the few African-American reporters” at the storied paper.
“These institutions have to keep changing,” Baquet says at one point during the docuseries, which also explores the decline of print journalism in the age of social media. “I’ve got to figure out how to pull that off without everybody getting distracted from what’s the biggest story in years.”
The Fourth Estate premieres Sunday night at 8 p.m. Eastern on Showtime.