The challenges of print journalism in the age of fake news, a media-hostile White House and shrinking revenue are at the heart of Showtime’s four-part documentary “The Fourth Estate.”
The series, which premieres Sunday, follows the New York Times’ Washington, D.C., and New York City newsrooms in the days and months following President Trump’s 2017 inauguration. Documentarian Liz Garbus (“What Happened, Miss Simone?”) and her team embed with reporters and editors as they scramble to cover a presidency that generates news and scandal by the hour.
But this is not a modern-day doc version of “All the President’s Men.” The journalists here are faced with unprecedented circumstances: a tweeting, reality-TV president with no experience in government; a distrusting public who’ve grown accustomed to the partisan news feeds of Facebook and Twitter and a reporting staff that’s at least half the size it was during Watergate.
“We have a president who is very comfortable not telling the truth,” says the paper’s executive editor Dean Baquet in the first of two, hourlong episodes available for review. “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, and all of those groups are picking through every story, looking for places where we failed.” The Trump presidency, he says, is “going to be a huge test for us …”
That test is the crux of this series, which can feel as unrelenting as the world it covers. It gets down in the thick of it all as the paper’s D.C. investigative journalists uncover then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia, break the news that FBI head James Comey has been fired and learn to navigate the new, contentious dynamic of a Sean Spicer press briefing.
The series is mostly an engrossing, behind-the-scenes look at a journalistic renaissance driven by the upheaval in Washington. But the fatigue that reporters experience from the barrage of breaking news, and the partisan rancor that makes their jobs so difficult, wears on the viewer as well. “The Fourth Estate” would have fared better had it pulled back at intervals to offer a long view rather than becoming a part of the culture it covered.
Yet the series does capture the excitement and crush of journalism today by throwing itself into an exhaustive news cycle: an endless slog of crisis after scandal after lie. In showing the emotional and personal toll that writing about the Trump White House has taken on the New York Times writers, we see White House correspondent and social media star Maggie Haberman, who lives in New York, yet commutes to D.C. every day. She reports, writes and posts on the train. And she has kids who don’t care if she’s in the middle of a taping of “The Daily” podcast or covering a White House briefing when they FaceTime her, sobbing.
“The biggest mistake I made is telling my children they’d get their mother back after the campaign was over,” says Haberman, “and that did not happen.”
Investigative correspondent Mark Mazzetti is shown weeks after Trump’s inauguration, working well into the night, as cleaning crews vacuum around him and his colleagues. Suffice to say Valentine’s Day 2017 wasn’t all that romantic.
While demand for by-the-minute news has skyrocketed, the revenue for traditional print media outlets has in fact plummeted. The family-owned New York Times is in a better position than most other American newspapers, but it’s still trying to do more with less since digital news-aggregation platforms have eaten away at print revenue.
Says Baquet, “the number of institutions who can do this is shrinking.” His challenge is to find ways to bring the New York Times into the future without diminishing its reporting ranks and award-winning coverage.
The series shows reporters stretched thin between chasing down leads, breaking stories, making deadlines, staying active on Twitter, podcasting and appearing on television to promote their coverage. In one clip, Trevor Noah of “The Daily Show” introduces a reporter from “the failing New York Times” as his guest, referring to a term Trump has used in his escalating attacks on the credibility of news outlets that don’t cover him in a favorable light.
At a Conservative Political Action Conference rally, political reporter Jeremy W. Peters interviews those in attendance, many of whom recoil when they find out which outlet he’s from. You’re one of the five, says a CPAC attendee. Peters asks, “Five what?” Enemies, says the man before he reels off the names: ABC, NBC, CNN, the Washington Post and the New York Times.
Later at the rally, Peters is sitting at a press table, covering the speech of the newly elected president. Trump ignites the already excited crowd when he says the press is “the enemy of the people.” The audience breaks into a chant of “USA! USA!” An unflappable Peters continues to write and listen, even as he becomes part of the story, in what proves to be one of the series’ more chilling moments.
If you’re not already concerned about the future of a free press, “The Fourth Estate’s” foreboding opening music, co-written by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, will get you there. If institutions such as the New York Times succumb to pressure or exhaustion or the modern economics of journalism, a critical part of our democracy dies too. Cue the dark music…