There has never been a more fraught time to practice journalism in America, with the President regularly attacking the free press as “fake news” and undermining efforts to do the democratically crucial job of speaking truth to power, while some journalists have apparently become too comfortable in their access and capitulate to the very institutions they’re meant to keep in check. The New York Times is, of course, a frequent target of Trump, and so makes for compelling subject matter in a new documentary that follows its journalists as they attempt to cover this roller coaster of an administration—both documenting the news and, by rights of Trump’s obsession with his hometown paper, becoming it.
The Fourth Estate, a four-episode Showtime series directed by the acclaimed documentarian Liz Garbus, is a bird’s-eye view of the way the Times covered the first leg of the Trump years, with a surprising amount of access to its New York and Washington bureaus as the shocking story of the presidency—specifically, the Russia investigation—begins to unfold. While journalism tends not to be the most visually compelling thing—watching another person type never is—this series creates a narrative by recognizing that it is documenting history, framing the journalists it follows as fearless, dogged heroes in the fight for truth. It also imbues the act of journalism with a quiet respect, knowing that it is a noble pursuit but not being overly precious about that fact, either, particularly because it recognizes its flaws, too—a later episode will deal with Glenn Thrush’s sexual misconduct allegations, for instance, and the documentary shows the journalists as they are scooped by the Washington Post.
In the series premiere, the New York bureau is depicted softening the Washington bureau’s lede on a story about Trump’s anti-immigrant State of the Union address to a degree that is shameful. (The initial piece framed his remarks on immigration as the most important issue he discussed; the tinkered and edited version focused most on his “appeal for unity.”) In that first episode, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last week and will air on Showtime May 27, two main characters emerge: reporter Maggie Haberman, who details her history of covering Trump as a New York figure and eventually becoming the Times’s lead White House correspondent; and Elisabeth Bumiller, the head of the Washington Bureau, who comes off as a respected, powerful leader grounding a chaotic newsroom.
Jezebel spoke with Jenny Carchman, who produced and co-directed The Fourth Estate with Liz Garbus, about her year behind the scenes at the Times, and their decision to zoom in on such powerful women in a newsroom that is primarily white and male. Our lightly edited conversation below.
JEZEBEL: My first question is about process. A lot of industries, like book publishing, had planned for a Hillary win. When you came to the idea to document the Times, were you thinking it was going to be covering the first woman president?
JENNY CARCHMAN: Actually, it was after the election, when Donald Trump first said he wanted to have a meeting with the New York Times. This was late November. First he said he wanted them to come to him. And they said no. And then he said he’d go to them but it would have to be off the record, and they said no. And so finally, the meeting happened and Trump went to the Times, and Maggie Haberman was live-tweeting it. And it was at that moment when Liz had the brilliant idea to say, “You know, wouldn’t it be great if I were a fly on the wall here in this meeting?” Liz asked me to get involved when she was still waiting to hear from the Times. She had asked for permission and they were discussing it and figuring out if this was a good thing to do. We started meeting reporters on January 18, and then we started shooting two days later. So the plan was not to cover Hillary. It was really that [Liz] had anticipated the drama and the craziness because of that meeting.
A lot of the act of journalism is just not that exciting; there’s a lot of sitting around at computers and typing, for instance. Was there a strategy to go in and make it exciting and accessible? How did you capture the drama of it?
We shot 150 days of last year. We shot upwards of five or six hundred hours. So obviously, we were cutting around it a lot of time, but we spent the first day or two just trying to figure out who’s covering the stories that are the most complicated, who’s really good on camera, and who is really willing to give us time and allow us to follow them. There was a lot of us sitting around and waiting and showing up. We shot every week, twice a week. It was a question of strategizing: what are the best days we should be there, the days when we knew that they were publishing a story?
But I mean, we’d just listen to the news and we’d be on Twitter and we kind of have to gauge what’s a day that seems like it’s going be a big day. Obviously, there were days where announcements were being made when we knew that those were happening and those were big days, and we planned to be there to document. But sometimes, like Comey being fired, we found that out at five o’clock one day and I just got on a train down to Washington and then just parked myself there for two days.
The news cycle is very beleaguering and depressing, and we can get bogged down in it. I wonder if you saw that in the Times journalists. I know their whole thing is being “apolitical” and “objective,” but I wonder if you got the sense that these journalists were sad or tired.
Well, yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, I didn’t get the sense that they were sad. I got the sense that they were running a marathon every day. They were very tired. They were working like almost 24 hours. So the first three months [was] just trying to figure out, like, what the hell happened. I didn’t get the sense that they were scared and or depressed by the news; it was actually very comforting to be in the office. The news was happening outside of the office. I think if I were not making this film, I would have had way more complicated and stressed-out feelings about the news. But I was there, and everything that I was learning about this administration was being filtered through their process, so it was all being put into perspective for me, because that’s what they’re doing. If I were just getting the news alerts on my phone while I’m out in the world, I think I would have been a little bit more alarmed and frazzled.
Yes, like all of us! The majority of the people reporting on these topics for the Times are white men, and one thing I really appreciated about the first episode is the way that you hone in on and sort of made like a little subplot out of Maggie Haberman and Elisabeth Bumiller—about just showing these powerful women and their complicated lives that they lead. I wonder if that was a very specific choice, or just that it played out that way.
It’s true—it’s not like we made Maggie more of a character than she actually is. And we definitely didn’t make Elisabeth more Elisabeth. She really is the nucleus of that office. They are incredibly powerful women, and they juggle an enormous amount, and the pressures that are on Maggie are huge because she’s the mother of three children and she doesn’t live in the same city that she covers, and she has the ear of the President. So it’s an enormous pressure on her.
Both Liz and I are mothers and we’re women, and we looked at these two women and how they are calm under pressure. They can handle it. But it’s taking a toll on them as well. They are incredibly tired. And Maggie, certainly, you know, has to deal with the fact she’s going to miss things in her life because she’s going back and forth to Washington. But I think we wanted to emphasize that there’s a different standard for sure. In later episodes, you meet Eric Lipton with his family and he’s out of town, too, while his children are home he’s missing. And then in the third episode with Yamiche Alcindor, we address the lack of people of color at the Times, she is, you know, one of their key reporters trying to cover race in this administration.
I’m looking forward to that! So you were filming when Trump really was weaponizing the idea of “fake news” and using it specifically towards the Times. I am wondering about your perspective into how it played out inside the Times.
He was calling the New York Times the “failing New York Times,” and he was calling news the fake news. You know he [gave that speech at CPAC], and the next day Spicer had kicked out reporters from the gaggle with him. That was the first time where people were feeling like, This is not going to go away, and actually this is getting even more and more pronounced and more and more dire.
Okay, we have time for one more question. I noticed that in your first episode, Glenn Thrush is not really in there, and I wonder if he’s in later episodes or if you decided to omit him once the sexual misconduct allegations came out.
Right. Glenn is in the second and third and fourth episode. And actually in the very beginning of filming, he really didn’t want to be filmed. We met with everybody individually and [at first], he said no to us. Then at a certain point in our filming he said it’s fine, it’s okay, you can film. So you don’t see him as much in the first episode because he wasn’t game. We do address the sexual harassment claims in Episode 4. We’re still cutting that episode—not that scene, but we’re still editing!
Note: An initial version of this piece spelled Elisabeth Bumiller’s first name with a z. Jezebel blames Trint, but still deeply regrets the error.