A veil is lifted in the final episode of The Fourth Estate, Liz Garbus’ new Showtime docu-series about the New York Times’ coverage of the Donald Trump presidency. (It premieres on May 27th.) The Washington bureau’s conservative politics correspondent, Jeremy Peters, is reporting on Roy Moore’s failed bid for the U.S. Senate in Alabama. He links up with Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist and the Southern politician’s most vocal national surrogate. It’s clear the pair – a leader of the alt-right and a gay beat reporter with a book deal, respectively – have a cordial relationship. On the car ride to a campaign event, they exchange pleasantries; later, the ex-Breitbart chairman discloses (“off the record”) the identity of a Republican operative who leaked Moore’s penchant for sex with teenagers to the Washington Post.
Once Bannon’s onstage, however, flanked by a backdrop of all-American hay bales, he stokes the crowd with a quick condemnation of the “fake news” – naming the New York Times, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal – that are “all here today!” Meanwhile, Peters tells the filmmakers, “there were at least two reporters from mainstream media outlets backstage, at Bannon’s invitation.”
It may not sound surprising that the fakers are mostly in the Trump camp, but it’s another thing to see video of it. A certain segment of the Northeast Corridor, where the rest of the series takes place, could happily watch hours of CCTV footage of the Times newsroom at work – and these employees of the Gray Lady work a lot in Fourth Estate. Aside from a few predawn domestic vignettes in tony District brownstones, Garbus’ camera is usually trained on reporters looking at laptops, or TV reports, or cell phones as they look for a Starbucks with WiFi so they can once again look at their laptops. But even for non-journo-junkies, the backdrop of an ongoing hearts-and-minds showdown with the President of the United States is what lends an otherwise endless array of office drudgery a near-constant air of conflict. “There’s an old saying,” says Garbus. “The rhetoric may be at war, but the journalists are at work.”
The idea for the series came shortly after the election, when Trump visited the Times’ Manhattan flagship for an on-the-record interview with the editorial board. “I just thought to be a fly on the wall in that room would be extraordinary,” says Garbus, whose past efforts include Emmy-award winning documentaries like What Happened Miss Simone? and Bobby Fischer Against the World. She spent the next 16 months embedded, both in New York and Washington, showcasing the many ways the NYT is fighting for survival. The only ground rule was the paper could vet the final cut to ensure no confidential sources were unwittingly revealed. “Otherwise,” says Garbus. “It’s all a conversation – you try to carve out what works, and the trust and access just sort of builds over time.”
The access is extraordinary. In New York, where Executive Editor Dean Baquet roams the halls dispensing sage wisdom, the company is weathering layoffs, shrinking office space and reinventing itself as a digital publisher. At one point, it’s also dealing with the fallout from accusations that Glenn Thrush, one of the paper’s two star White House correspondents (along with Maggie Haberman), has been accused of sexual misconduct during his time as a reporter at Politico. Garbus is in the room when he announces his decision to suspend Thrush, and move him off the White House beat. It’s darkly ironic that the wave of high-profile revelations about sexually abusive celebrities, which largely stemmed from the Times’ reporting on Harvey Weinstein, has struck its own newsroom. “We started this conversation,” Baquet says. “Part of me thinks it’s healthy that we were forced to have it ourselves now.”
The editor, like the series itself, finds hope in everything else coming out of D.C., where the paper’s “Russia Group” is churning out a series of troubling scoops about the president. “Even if it turns out that Donald Trump and the people around him were unwitting beneficiaries,” Baquet says on-camera, in regards to allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election. “That’s an extraordinary story.” (Spoiler: It appears to be the rare case where Trump and his cronies weren’t unwitting.)
The Washington bureau is run by Beltway vet Elisabeth Bumiller, who Garbus calls “air traffic control.” “All these different reporters would be coming in sharing information with her,” she says. “It became this ballet of information gathering.” Here’s a partial list of stories that unfold while the camera is hovering around Bumiller’s standing desk: Trump’s private request that FBI director James Comey offer a pledge of loyalty and end the investigation into his National Security Adviser Michael Flynn; the Trump Tower meeting that Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner held with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton; the blow-by-blow White House intrigue around the oustings of Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer and Comey; and the fact that the FBI’s Russia investigation began with surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, rather than intel gleaned from Christopher Steele’s now infamous Trump memos. For Garbus, “these sprawling deep investigations were the most thrilling … I’ve never really spent time in newsrooms before. But if I had seen that as a kid, I probably would have ended up an investigative journalist. I found it so fascinating.”
Trump’s response to each scoop, either in a screen-grabbed tweet or delivered directly to supporters at one of his rabid public rallies, is inevitably to charge the “crooked media” with trading in “fake news.” “And of course, you know, this is not by accident,” says Garbus. “If you can make people believe that the news is full of lies and fake, then anything they print about you can be undermined.” The series becomes a four-hour attempt to confront how the president is “damaging the public’s faith in reporting,” with Garbus going ever-deeper into the newsgathering process, as if auditing the authenticity of the work produced by the country’s most esteemed news outlet. In this way, Bannon’s unmasking in Alabama is both cathartic and deeply troubling. It’s nice to see him fully exposed as a two-faced political manipulator. But then again, why do we suddenly need so much visual proof that the New York Times isn’t playing the same game? “This is the kind of acid trip reality that these reporters are navigating,” says Garbus. “I think when you see The Fourth Estate, you see how hard these guys work to get it right.”