Courtesy: Showtime

Television

How 'The Fourth Estate' Offers a Rare Peek at Trump's Top Enemy

If anything good has come from the first year-and-change of Donald Trump’s presidency, it’s the rise of what many are calling the Golden Age of Journalism. A free press has always been an integral cornerstone to democracy, but that’s never felt more apparent than in this fraught political moment. As Trump continues to undermine the credibility of the press with each passing Twitter tirade, a new cadre of reporters have emerged as direct foils to the president.

But perhaps no journalist has seen their profile skyrocket in the Trump era quite like Maggie Haberman. Having covered Trump since the early 2000s when she was a dogged tabloid reporter in Manhattan, Haberman has developed a preternatural ability to gain access to the president, as well as those in his immediate orbit. As the New York Times’ star White House correspondent, no one has been as crucial in shaping our understanding of both Trump’s psyche, and life inside the turbulent West Wing.

But Haberman’s proximity to Trump also means that of all the reporters working the frantic White House beat, she faces the most public scrutiny. Take, for example, her recent tweet in which she used the term “demonstrable falsehood” to call the president out, instead of the much more straightforward “lie.” Haberman’s post sent media Twitter into a frenzy, with many critics slamming the reporter for handling Trump with kid gloves.
One person who came to Haberman’s defense was Liz Garbus, the independent filmmaker behind the new docuseries The Fourth Estate, which airs in four parts on Showtime over the coming weeks. Garbus invited “those engaged in the Twitter debate about the use of the word ‘lie’ at the New York Times” to watch her documentary, in which Haberman and many of her colleagues at the Times “weigh the usage of the word.” While making The Fourth Estate—which takes us inside the paper of record’s whirlwind year of covering the first year of the Trump administration—Garbus was given unprecedented access to the Times’ fabled newsroom and saw firsthand the toll it takes on its reporters, which helps explain why she went to bat for Haberman.

“Maggie has incredible sources, and she’s extraordinarily hardworking,” Garbus tells Playboy. “She gets Trump. She’s been working in his orbit for years, so this is nothing new. She understands his dynamic, and she understands how he tries to work the press. She’s kind of the perfect journalist for Trump in that sense.”

Like many of us, Garbus was blindsided by Trump’s 2016 election win. But instead of screaming into the void, the accomplished documentarian—her 2016 film, What Happened, Miss Simone?, was nominated for an Oscar—decided to mobilize. “I was looking for ways to use my voice as a way to make sense of this seismic political shift,” she recalls. Garbus was struck by the steady stream of Twitter attacks levied by Trump against the “failing New York Times,” and in particular, how that fraught relationship would play out in the now-infamous meeting held in November 2016 at the Times’ Midtown Manhattan headquarters between the then-President-elect and the Times’ editorial board.

“Trump tweeted that he was canceling this meeting he had with the Times because they had changed the rules, and the Times insisted that the rules were the same and that the meeting was never going to be off the record, and nobody had changed anything, and then Trump said the meeting was back on,” she says. “I was at my desk, and I thought, ‘Wow, if only I could be a fly on the wall at that meeting.’”

After reaching out to a friend who writes for the New York Times Magazine, Garbus was introduced to Sam Dolnick, the man leading the Times’ charge into the digital future. Garbus explained to Dolnick—who at the time was working through the night to launch podcast The Daily—that she wanted to “tell the story of journalism in this age” and show how journalists do what they do in the face of “division and attacks” from an administration with very little transparency. “I wanted to show how journalists do their jobs.”
There’s a lot of people on the left and the right who use the New York Times as a punching bag.
Despite getting Dolnick’s blessing, not everyone was receptive to Garbus’ idea. Reporters are highly protective of their sources, and some felt that the presence of cameras could put their anonymity in jeopardy. “It was up to every individual to decide whether or not they were going to participate in the film,” Garbus explains. “If our cameras were around, we’d have to negotiate with the people who didn’t want to be in the film.” If one of Garbus’ cameras caught a reporter using a pronoun or a gender to describe a source, that footage was wiped instantly.

Eventually, the reporters became hyperaware of Garbus’ presence and took the necessary precautions, like speaking generally and omitting the use of pronouns. Garbus admits that, at times, she was intrusive, especially in the smaller confines of the Washington bureau. “It was hard negotiating boundaries and space with reporters who have to talk on the phone with sources, so it was taxing on people,” she says. “I really appreciated them putting up with me when they had so much at stake and so much on their plate.”

That the Times ultimately agreed to let Garbus and her crew behind the curtain should come as no real surprise. Of all the groups that Trump has attacked since he took office—and there have been many—none has drawn his ire quite like the media, which he famously declared to be “the enemy of the people.” By showing us the often tedious intricacies of how the sausage is made, it’s impossible to walk away from The Fourth Estate without a profound respect for Haberman and her colleagues.

These are not figures of the resistance, and their primary objective isn’t to topple the Trump presidency, despite what many on the other side of the aisle want to believe. “There’s a lot of people on the left and the right who use the Times as a punching bag. But they’re equal-opportunity truth finders, and they’re out there to get the story, not to take aim on a particular candidate,” Garbus says. “Just look at the work of Michael Schmidt. He was the reporter who broke the Hillary [Clinton] email story and was hated by those on the left. He also broke the story about the [James] Comey memos, which led to the appointment of [Robert] Mueller. It’s their job to find out facts and to find out what it is going on.”

The Fourth Estate airs Sundays at 8/7c on Showtime.

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