Like many in the country, documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus (“What Happened, Miss Simone?”) was shocked when Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States. But what really fascinated her was how the media would be able to cover one of the most hostile presidents toward the press in modern times.
And when Trump went on a tirade on Twitter in November of 2016 about if he was going enter the building of the “failing” New York Times for an interview, the wheels began turning in Garbus’ head.
“I thought, ‘What if I could be a fly on the wall at that meeting,'” she told Business Insider.
In that moment, Garbus had the idea for her next project: a look at how The New York Times, one of the most esteemed news outlets, would cover a president in the era of “fake news.”
In the four-part Showtime documentary series, “The Fourth Estate” (episode one aired Sunday), Garbus is given unprecedented access by the paper to chronicle its coverage of Trump during his first year in office. The filmmaker is there to capture some of the biggest stories about the Trump White House — from Michael Flynn’s resignation as national security adviser to James Comey’s firing as FBI director by Trump. And we are right there when breaking news happens or a reporter gets something extraordinary, like Trump calling the Times’ White House correspondent Maggie Haberman to comment on the collapse of the health care legislation in the Senate.
The docuseries is an interesting look at the reporters and editors who have been on a non-stop Trump news cycle the past year, and gives us a glimpse at how they use sources and gumshoe reporting to get the news out to the world, while still having some semblance of a personal life.
“I walked in there trying to understand the ecosystem, how it goes from a reporter having lunch with somebody to becoming a story that you then go back to the government for comment,” Garbus said. “That whole process was opaque to me and it was something that I learned along with our viewers.”
How she got in the newsroom
Though Garbus got the “okay” from the heads of The New York Times to make the docuseries, she still had to get the permission of every single reporter and editor she wanted to film. Needless to say, not everyone was instantly receptive. But there were some that Garbus felt were pivotal to have.
“Maggie Haberman, she’s one of their star White House reporters and she’s also a really compelling character,” Garbus said. “She’s a working mom who lives in New York and is traveling down to DC and has incredible sources. She was important.”
Some of the most compelling moments throughout the series are when the camera is following Haberman. Having covered Trump since back in her days reporting at The New York Daily News, she’s in many ways the Trump decoder for the paper. She is the one they turn to in order to better understand the president and his behavior. But then Garbus also shows Haberman’s personal life as a mother who is never home and has to continue on the Trump grind — even though she thought Trump would lose the election and promised her family once that happened she would be home more.
And then there’s the Times’ Washington correspondent, Michael S. Schmidt, who at first declined Garbus’ invitation to be in her project. Over time, he had second thoughts.
“You might tell he’s not in episode one, but then you see more of him in the episodes going forward,” Garbus said. “He was someone who was very wary and skeptical but then decided to play ball. I’m so happy he did because he was really one of the reporters that was getting so many scoops and advancing our knowledge of Trump and the investigations this past year.”
And Schmidt’s personal life is very different than Haberman’s. He’s single and basically lives and breathes his beat. At one point in an episode, he says half jokingly that he doesn’t even have food in his refrigerator because he’s never there.
Garbus pinballs back and forth from the newsroom in New York City to the Washington, DC bureau — the latter being where a lot of the exciting breaking news takes place in “The Fourth Estate.”
She admitted the entire filming was not a comfortable experience. Often reporters would brush away her camera or run into a conference room if they were speaking to a source, but when news broke things got easier as the newsroom went into action and Garbus and her two crew members (some episodes are also directed by Jenny Carchman) would just react to what they were seeing.
It was when nothing was going on that the filmmakers stuck out like a sore thumb.
“You would be pointing your camera at someone refreshing their Twitter feed and that’s annoying,” Garbus said.
Disdain toward the press isn’t going to stop any time soon
Hanging over all the episodes in the docuseries is how the media is portrayed as a bunch of liars and fabricators by Trump.
Garbus shows this in a few different ways, from reporters interacting with Trump supporters to the eerie score throughout the series which is done by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who have done scores for “The Social Network” and “Gone Girl”).
One of the big motivations for Garbus to do the project was to show just how much goes into a story actually making it to print.
“Every time the Times has a scoop related to, say, the FBI, they call the FBI for comment, you give them the opportunity [to comment],” Garbus said. “The sausage making in some way is very unglamorous but that’s what I really wanted to expose and demystify. I think there have been so many attacks on journalism, but the way these reporters make sure someone is on the level with them and the amount that they don’t put into the newspaper that they hear is pretty incredible.”
In one of the most chilling moments of the docuseries, Garbus’ team follows a Times reporter to one of the rallies Trump did after he became president. At one moment, Trump bashes the media in the room and Garbus’ team, inside the press section, shows the crowd around them becoming more and more volatile toward the press. It’s an instance that Garbus believes isn’t going to go away anytime soon.
“You can’t built up the emotions of people and call out the press to people without inciting violence,” Garbus said. “I think there will be more instances like that and that’s really alarming. But these journalists are not afraid.”
And Garbus wants to continue looking at the press and Trump. Though “The Fourth Estate” has been wrapped for a while, she doesn’t rule out some kind of sequel either at the Times or another outlet.
“I think looking at the press right now is important,” she said. “We don’t know where this roller coaster ride we’re on will end, but many of us agree the press is an important partner to have on that ride.”
“The Fourth Estate” airs Sundays on Showtime, or stream the entire docuseries here.