Last August, one week after a man with ties to white supremacists allegedly rammed his car into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, Va., killing one woman and injuring 19, U.S. President Donald Trump told a rally in Arizona that he knew who was to blame for the country’s divisions: the media.
“They don’t want to report the facts. Just like they don’t want to report that I strongly condemned the neo-Nazis, the white supremacists and the KKK,” Trump bellowed, eliding the fact that it had taken him two days to utter the condemnations – and, also that, when he had finally done so, the media had dutifully reported it. “The only people giving a platform to these hate groups is the media itself and the fake news,” he added. “These are sick people.”
Taking their cue, the crowd brayed at the reporters who were tapping away on their laptops in the media pen and trying to ignore the provocations. “What kind of American are you?” one person screamed.
The moment is just one of the many infuriating scenes in The Fourth Estate, the new four-part documentary series that lifts the veil on the inner workings of The New York Times during the first year of the Trump presidency. The series, which airs in Canada on TMN beginning May 27 and will stream on CraveTV, was made by Liz Garbus, the two-time Oscar-nominated documentarian behind What Happened, Miss Simone? and the prison doc The Farm: Angola, USA.
Garbus’s idea for the series originated two weeks after Trump’s election, when he preened and pouted (on Twitter, naturally) that The Times had changed the terms of its upcoming editorial board meeting with him, from off to on the record. (They had not; it had always been on-the-record.)
“Of course, after the drama, he went anyway,” Garbus noted in an interview during a visit to Toronto last month for the Hot Docs film festival, which screened the series’ first episode. “It was just very clear that this was going to be an ongoing drumbeat: The President was going to be attacking the press but also craving the press – and that this was potentially very dangerous, and somewhere very important to be.”
The Times was wary of Garbus’s pitch: Reporters are understandably skittish about having strangers eavesdrop on their conversations with sources. But with the media industry in financial upheaval and one of the paper’s nastiest critics having just ascended to the most powerful bully pulpit on the planet – in February, 2017, Trump would infamously declare the media to be “the enemy of the people” – the paper recognized the importance of more transparency.
“You so rarely get to look behind the curtain,” noted Jenny Carchman, a producer and co-director on the series who accompanied Garbus to Toronto.
“Forget for a second that you have this incredibly antagonistic character who’s throwing punches wherever he can, but you actually get to see the process of how an article is written. How do you source information, how do you beat the competition? And then you get to see some of the people whose bylines you read every day, what they sound like, what they look like, how they interact with their bosses.”
Garbus acknowledged that earning her subjects’ trust was a daunting challenge: It included a legally binding document in which she pledged not to reveal sources. “If we were in a meeting, and a pronoun was used that would indicate the gender of a source, we’d delete it on the spot,” she said.
Still, her camera did catch glimpses of moments their subjects probably would have preferred to have stayed in the shadows. Last September, White House correspondent Glenn Thrush declared on Twitter that he was rendering his account “dormant” because the app was “too much of a distraction.” But as we see in Episode 3, after he issued one too many cheeky tweets taking aim at Trump’s nastiness, Thrush was hauled into a manager’s office to be dressed down – and told to delete Twitter from his phone. (He began tweeting again in March.)
And there are moments that may surprise viewers on both sides of the political spectrum, as when the political reporter Jeremy Peters sits down for a genial weekly interview with the former presidential adviser Steve Bannon, who tells Garbus that he respects the reporter’s objectivity.
Watching the series may feel to some viewers as if they’re passing through the looking glass while enduring an acid flashback. All the greatest hits of Trump’s first year are here, many of which continue to play out in headlines even today – the Michael Flynn investigation, James Comey’s firing, the Donald Jr.-brokered Trump Tower campaign meeting with Russian operatives, the raid on Paul Manafort’s house – except seen, this time, from backstage, as the reporters dig up (and scrupulously deliberate with their editors) the stories before hitting “Pub” and sending them out to an increasingly stunned world.
In the first episode, The Times’ executive editor, Dean Baquet, observes that Trump’s rise had disrupted the norms of both politics and journalism, and that the paper needed to respond in new ways to the evolving challenges. For the most part, that response seems to be to simply double down on the paper’s historical strength of investigative reporting, which leads to an extraordinary run of scoops about the administration. (It also prompts the cutting of other costs at the paper, spurring a brief walkout caught by Garbus’s cameras.)
Still, they’re searching for other strategies to confront different challenges.
“Have they found the lane that feels right for The New York Times in the Trump era?” Garbus asks rhetorically. “I think they’re driving around it. At the top of , they had a meeting that’s in Episode 4, where they’re trying to figure out how to deal with [Trump’s] lies. So I think as the year is unfolding, they’ve been very introspective about it. Have they figured it all out? No, they’re still in process.”
The Fourth Estate premieres on TMN and CraveTV on May 27.