Showtime's ‘Fourth Estate’ shows how the journalism sausage is made
Yamiche Alcindor sits at the table of an Ohio couple who had used a government program to upgrade the windows and efficiency of their home. It made a huge difference, they told her with pride. They couldn’t have done it otherwise.
Would they have still voted for President Trump, the New York Times reporter asks, if they had known the program would be cut? If others couldn’t enjoy the benefit they had? If they themselves would have missed out?
Quietly, the wife, who earns $13,000 a year, responds: Trump speaks for us. If we had to make sacrifices, even if it meant losing the prized improvement to her house, it would be worth it to get The Wall to protect us.
That scene, in the third episode of Showtime’s “The Fourth Estate,” startles Alcindor. It calls into question the incessant work she and other New York Times reporters have done to assemble the discordant facts of the first year of the Trump administration.
The scene is one of the few glimpses into Trump’s America in this documentary, which premieres Sunday, on the Times and its work. Other glances — the CPAC convention, a media-baiting Trump rally in Phoenix, and a visit to Steve Bannon’s Capitol Hill “embassy” — have a combative feel, from the president and supporters calling reporters enemies of the people, “fake” — and worse.
For the most part, “Fourth Estate” works like an updated “All The President’s Men,” focusing on the step-by-step fact gathering on Russian involvement in the 2016 election, the tightening of migration policy, the scent-turned-stench of corruption, the hard-working reporters figuring it out.
They work all the time, marvels editor Dean Baquet, much harder than he did at that point in his career.
Alcindor says she feels a great responsibility as one of the Times’ few reporters of color. On the day Jeff Sessions vowed to dismantled DACA, she spoke to Sen. Dick Durbin, the son of a Lithuanian immigrant, who wrote the DACA bill. She spoke briefly of her dad, from Port-au-Prince and Petionville, and Durbin said he’d been to Haiti. In another scene, Alcindor, now at PBS NewsHour, spoke of Emmett Till and the fact of his killing — the photo of his dead body in newspapers — as showing the power of facts for change.
Human beings bring you these facts, Liz Garbus’s documentary practically shouts at you.
In one scene, Maggie Haberman, squatting against a wall in the Washington bureau, is consoling her kids who are back in New York, saying she’ll be back home soon. The Trump beat reporter, who said she learned from her reporter dad that journalism takes more than it gives back, nonetheless has chased that adrenaline. (She, like James Comey and even Trump himself, had thought Hillary Clinton would win — and had promised her kids they would have their mommy back in November 2016.)
Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, best friends since their days at The Associated Press (they even live across the street from each other) get scoops, including the raid on Paul Manafort’s home. Another AP vet in the Washington bureau, Matt Rosenberg, a divorced dad, is shown getting his two kids off to school before work.
Another scoop machine, Michael S. Schmidt, talks about his singular focus — he’s not married, not involved with anyone — as he goes to hit a bucket of golf balls alone one night. In one foreshadowing scene, Glenn Thrush, dressed down by bosses for intemperate tweets, acknowledges his problem with moderation, even with alcohol.
To a journalist, the newsroom scenes have a lived truth. Elizabeth Bumiller, the steady Washington bureau chief, is so livid with New York editors that she won’t speak with one after they changed the lead on a State of the Union story. MacBook Air-toting reporters ferry quotes to others. Journalists discuss framing, context and adjectives, improving one story with a substitution of “dire” for “treacherous.”
Director Garbus effectively creates a screen within a screen for the tweets that drive the news — and frequently cuts to the CNN broadcasts of Times scoops to a broader world. Like director Alan Pakula in “Presidents,” Garbus also showcases juxtapositions, beginning the first episode with newsroom reactions during Trump’s “American Carnage” inauguration speech. She ends the episode with one of the strangest juxtapositions ever, Trump at the Easter Egg Hunt while reporters finish a story that settles on the most contentious word of this administration: collusion.
The series also shakes a viewer out of a frog-in-boiling-water stupor over the Trump administration’s corruption, with reporters reacting at wonder at discovering the national security advisor’s secret channel with the Kremlin, the Trump campaign foreign policy aide who knew he was meeting a Kremlin intermediary, the indictment alleging that Manafort, who worked as Trump’s campaign manager “for free,” got $75 million in questionable funds from abroad.
Perhaps this Showtime series, reaching a premium cable channel audience with its humanization of reporters and their drive to uncover facts, might win converts to the value of journalism — and facts — in a dire (treacherous?) time for democracy.
But I’m still thinking about Yamiche Alcindor and the Ohio couple she met, the struggling husband and wife who would trade in their economic benefits for a wall that many acknowledge will benefit only the contractors building it.