"The Fourth Estate" And The Fight For A Free Press

171109-nytimes-news-feature.jpg

Two words. Two simple words that can end any argument and bring any reasonable, intelligent discourse to a grinding halt. “Fake news.” That has become the rallying cry and main bastion of the Trump administration and the Republican Party as a whole since the 2016 election. When Trump took office, many in the news media feared and consulted legal analysts about what repercussions there could be from an entire presidential administration that seeks to undermine, on a daily basis, the very institutions holding it accountable. Well, it’s been almost two years now and Trump still hasn’t fulfilled his promise to “open up” libel laws (in fact he lost a libel suit in April brought against him by a former Apprentice contestant), but Trump never wanted to actually change the laws, as he doesn’t seem to much care for laws, he wanted to change public perception. It is a plan he even revealed to 60 Minutes anchor Lesley Stahl, off camera, during an interview back in 2016. And, so far, the plan has been working as Republicans’ trust in news media reached its lowest point in the past 20 years according to a Gallup poll. However, the same poll found that 51 percent of Democrats do have a great deal/fair amount of trust in mass media, compared to only 14 percent of Republicans.

There are many ways to try and rationalize this massive gap between the two parties. Is it all because of Trump? Is this part of a steady, downward trend that has been happening for the past 40 years (it is)? Or is it actually the news organizations themselves who, in a fast-paced society of constant social media feeds and even faster-depleting advertising revenue for news outlets, have fed into this divisiveness in the way they covered the Trump campaign from the beginning? This is a complicated and rather subjective question to try and answer. But pictures don’t lie. So, without drawing party lines, documentary filmmakers have taken up the cause of trying to restore the public’s faith in the media. The most recent, and most poignant, example is The Fourth Estate from director Liz Garbus on Showtime.

The series follows the staff of The New York Times as it tries to do conventional political coverage of a completely unconventional president during Trump's first year in office. Viewers are given a look into both the New York and Washington office of The Times and are shown the candid moments behind the headlines of many major moments of the Trump administration. The four-part series begins with an episode covering the reporting of the first 100 days of the presidency, which is truly exhausting for the viewer as you are taken at breakneck pace from one scandal to another, trying to remember a time when you were able to follow the news so closely before just becoming desensitized as many feel today. But the rest of the episodes take broader aims at recurring themes in the administration and are able to weave together an accurate timeline and temperament of Trump’s presidency without going through each day’s respective headlines chronologically.

But the story here is not the stories themselves or who broke what, but what makes The Fourth Estate rather noteworthy is that it portrays the actual humanity of these journalists. These stories are written by real people doing real reporting. At times it easy to relate with these veteran reporters because they express the same frantic energy to get the news as many readers, and they also share their readers’ bewilderment at some of the unprecedented actions taken by Trump and his cabinet. But when you see Maggie Haberman working through Trump’s first State of the Union, stopping only to take a call from one of her small children at home, one has to think: these are the enemies of the American people? The journalists who sacrifice time with their kids, and some even their whole lives, to devote to chasing down leads and reporting the information for the country: these are the enemies? When journalist Michael Schmidt says “I am single, and I live by myself. I have no other commitments. I work, that’s what I do. I don’t even have food in my apartment,” it’s hard to see him as some villain writing nefarious stories to personally bring down a president.

But the documentary also captures what some people don’t like about The Times. At the paper’s first daily budget meeting after James Comey was fired, you can hear people already throwing the word “obstruction” around before many of the details had emerged. It also purposefully highlights Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, when the former F.B.I. director said that a Times story on Trump associates meeting with Russian intelligence officials in February 2017 was mostly false, but could not say how or to what extent because the information was classified at the time. Also, one thing that really doesn’t help the paper’s pompous, liberal image is Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller’s standing desk. If she had said “sitting is the new smoking” I would have canceled my subscription to the paper.

Obviously, neither The Fourth Estate nor any other well-made documentary is going to convince Trump and his supporters that there is inherent value in The New York Times. Nobody on the right is going to recant on their “fake news” claims, because those claims are not about the Times, CNN or even The Washington Post. It’s about being able to control reality and perspective in a way politicians were never able to before. But, just like in the news business, The Times isn’t here to try and change your opinion one way or another. The Times is here simply to give you the facts to govern yourselves and make your own decision. And that’s what The Fourth Estate has done for viewers. There are no clever slogans or chants, no “build the wall” or “lock her up.” Nobody tells you what to do or what to think, you can put it together yourself. And that is the quiet dignity that gives The Fourth Estate its power.