The challenge of understanding Donald Trump’s effect on America at large goes hand-in-hand with covering the 45th president of the United States. From big picture questions like, “What’s the story?” to more detailed queries like, “What’s the angle on the story?” and even “What are the appropriate adjectives to frame that angle within the story?” there’s no set handbook for reporters who are constantly being undermined by the authority figures they cover.
How do you convey facts in an era of fake news? “The Fourth Estate” aims to illustrate exactly that, as Liz Garbus’ four-part docuseries delves into the exhausting lives of New York Times’ reporters delivering exhaustive coverage of all things Trump. Starting with the newsroom watching his inauguration and running through April 2018, the engrossing series moves at the pace of its subjects: fast and efficient. Yet much like some of the inevitable mistakes of the paper of record, the series ultimately feels incomplete and remiss in its responsibilities.
The first part clocks in at the feature-length runtime of 87 minutes; a fitting extension given how much ground is covered in Trump’s “First 100 Days” (the episode’s title). Garbus lays out her subjects clearly: There’s Dean Baquet, the executive editor who’s probably shown more often in a coat and scarf than the staff is found in straight ties or pressed shirts. White House correspondent Maggie Haberman is the Trump insider, as she repeatedly ran into the future president while working the City Hall beat for the New York Daily News. Over in the D.C. branch, Washington Bureau Chief Elisabeth Bumiller is trying to keep things running smoothly despite a testy relationship with the leadership back in New York.
T.J. Kirkpatrick / Showtime
Garbus’ opening hours capture key details and plenty of live reactions to big stories. Baquet talks about having a soft spot for Bumiller’s position because he used to be a D.C. chief, shortly before one of her ledes gets rewritten by the New York office even though the Washington team thinks it’s a bad call. There’s a heated rivalry between the Times and the Washington Post, one which goes back decades but features a topical dispute over how a paper should be run in 2018. (The Post is owned by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, while the Times is publicly controlled by the Ochs-Sulzberger family.)
But most of the focus is on the stories. Whether it’s James Comey announcing an active federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia or the various officials being fired from the West Wing, “The Fourth Estate” often finds itself caught up in the moment with the reporters. Scenes show how decisions are made to pull the trigger on a story. Reporters are shown on the phone with sources and making panicked calls to their editors when they get a hot tip. Text fills the TV screen as words are typed out, revised, and highlighted in order to put the viewer in the writer’s shoes.
It all can be quite thrilling: a peek behind the scenes of how things actually go down when news breaks. Garbus also gets across how hard these reporters are working and how often; Haberman abruptly leaves an early morning podcast to take a Facetime with her kids, as it’s one of the only times she can see them. Others talk about how their families have gotten used to them not being around, and, looking back, so many in-office scenes take place at night.
The anxiety seen in their faces and echoed in the pressure they put upon themselves, let alone what they feel through comment sections and social media, goes to show how seriously these reporters take their work. “The Fourth Estate” shows them gathering facts and reporting them; it’s actively working against the idea that “fake news” reporters make up anything, and it humanizes the people who are being attacked by the right and the left.
T.J. Kirkpatrick / Showtime
Beyond that, though, there are nagging issues with the documentary. Washington Correspondent Yamiche Alcindor mentions how she’s one of the only black reporters on the Times’ staff, but the topic is never revisited. The third episode, titled “American Carnage,” digs into Trump’s defense of neo-Nazis and ongoing support from the alt-right, but there’s no mention of the questionable profiles published in the paper of record on those very individuals. Little is done to examine both sides of any decision, so much as the difficulty of making those decisions is shown to be difficult.
Moreover, by the time the series wraps up, it does not feel complete. Articles from the first hour start to connect with new stories surfacing in the fourth, as reporters speculate that something big is around the corner. They don’t think the story is over yet, and indeed, it isn’t. It may not be for a long time — so long that the events of Garbus’ docuseries may feel outdated by the time a proper ending plays out in real life. But it doesn’t help the series itself feel whole.
The New York Times is changing along with the world; digital ad sales overtook print tallies and editors’ jobs were cut to make room for more writers. How will these adjustments affect the press in the long run? As more skeptics look toward the Times for leadership, how might its operating and editorial decisions cause a ripple effect across the fourth estate? These questions are as open-ended as Trump’s political future, but they’re under-evaluated here. It’s clear these men and women are meeting the challenge; what’s less certain is what all their work will mean.
“The Fourth Estate” premieres Sunday, May 27 at 8 p.m. ET on Showtime.