After watching Showtime’s “The Fourth Estate,” I am starting to believe Liz Garbus is the best documentary filmmaker going.
And during this existential time of revolutionary change in the world of journalism, we are lucky to have her so compellingly document a significant slice of one of the greatest stories and struggles in the history of the profession: The New York Times’ effort to cover the nation’s most unconventional president with the high standards of legacy journalism.
Watch Garbus’ 2009 documentary, “Shouting Fire: Stories from the edge of Free Speech,” and you will understand her reverence for the First Amendment. View her 2015 Oscar-nominated film, “What Happened, Miss Simon?” — about singer and civil rights advocate Nina Simone — and you will feel her passion for voices that speak truth to power in times of peril.
She is the perfect filmmaker to be telling this story, and she is at the top of her game.
Showtime only made three of four parts available for screening, so I am reluctant to say the series is “the greatest this” or “the best that.” But I guarantee you this: If you come to this documentary series with an open mind, you will never believe Donald Trump when he tries to dismiss a story in the New York Times as “fake news.”
The series opens on January 20, 2017 with the inauguration of Trump.
We see and hear the president, right hand raised, saying, “I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear … ” and then the cameras take us to Manhattan and the newsroom of the Times where executive editor Dean Baquet sits surrounded by editors watching the ceremony on television.
“Wow, what a story,” Baquet says as Trump concludes the oath of office and the band starts to play. “What a (expletive) story. OK, let’s go.”
What an opening. That’s all of one minute and five seconds, and that’s how deft and smooth Garbus is in defining the two great forces — Trump and the Times, the executive branch of government and the fourth estate — that will do battle in this series.
Garbus’ team doesn’t just embed with the Times, it’s more like they burrow into the fabric of the institution. And it’s not just fly-on-the-wall point of view. Flies are jittery and short of attention. The filmmaker’s gaze here is sure and steady. And it captures the toll that gathering, synthesizing, verifying and presenting information takes on those who do it at this level — and at this moment in history when the industry is under attack on so many fronts.
That’s the backdrop for this drama, and Garbus lays it all out. But it’s not done as a lecture. She shows it to us, and lets us judge for ourselves.
Baquet says that his bosses asked him to try to shrink the space his operation needs to save some money. And so, the reporting and editing plays out against a backdrop of drywall installers, painters and construction.
Media columnist Jim Rutenberg is shown getting off an elevator. He’s wearing a nice blue blazer, but there are several large white marks around his shoulder.
He leaned into some wet paint in the building, he explains.
Most cost-cutting moments are darker than that. As the Washington bureau is covering breaking news, copy editors are staging a walkout in New York over proposed buyouts and possible layoffs.
Baquet explains the imperative of switching the Times to a news operation for the digital age. To do that successfully, he needs more reporters, not editors. He says he has too many editors left over from a newsroom that was built for print.
And then, there’s the battle with the Washington Post. That’s one of the reasons Baquet feels he needs more reporters: staying toe to toe with the Post, which is engaged with the Times in an epic journalistic struggle in their coverage of this helter-skelter administration.
There’s a brilliant sequence about 15 minutes into Part 1 of the series as Garbus shows viewers members of the Times Washington bureau trying to nail down a story saying Michael Flynn, who had since become Trump’s national security adviser, was discussing the rollback of sanctions with Russian officials prior to the inauguration.
Some of the best investigative reporters in the country work into the night trying to nail down the story. But they finally decide they don’t have it solidly enough to publish.
As they are shown heading home, the screen fills with a shot of the facade of the Washington Post as viewers hear Rachel Maddow telling her MSNBC audience that the Post just published a story online about Flynn having discussed the rolling back of sanctions against Russia.
The morning after is grim as Elisabeth Bumiller, the bureau chief, tries to determine how her troops got beat.
Bumiller is one of the stars of this series, and rightfully so. She is a model of dogged determination and calm, serious leadership in moments of tremendous stess. And there is not an inch of self-aggrandizment in her, despite all the outsized egos she is charged with managing.
I have not seen another documentary get this far inside the culture of journalism outside the newsroom.
There’s another scene in Part 1 that features an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau, a single dad, waking his two young children for school and then getting breakfast ready in the kitchen before they come down.
He drops a container of rasberries on the floor, and scoops some of them up into small dishes.
His son asks for a donut from yesterday for breakfast, and that’s what he gets. The daughter is shown eating rasberries.
After bundling them into a car for school, he hustles into the bureau to do battle with the Post and the president of the United States, who has all but declared war on his paper.
In Part 3, Garbus’ cameras show what it is like to be a Times reporter at a Trump rally and have the president incite the crowd against you and your colleagues. Her cameras and microphones capture the febrile edge and ugly language used by Trump followers against reporters in the press pen as the president eggs them on.
“The Fourth Estate” is great non-fiction television, and Showtime is the place to be at 8 p.m. Sunday for Part 1. But it is also a document for future generations, a chronicle of what it was like to be in the trenches when the chief executive of the United States went to war against the press and a fact-based information ecosystem for this democracy.