How Showtime's The Fourth Estate combats Trump's fake news
Two-time Oscar-nominated director Liz Garbus knew that “journalists and journalism were gonna be under attack” when Donald Trump took office. So she’s responding with Showtime’s The Fourth Estate.
In EW’s exclusive clip from the four-part docuseries, we get a glimpse inside the newsroom of The New York Times, during the president’s first year in office. While America’s commander-in-chief demonized mainstream news organizations as “fake news,” The Times consistently chased the stories. And, as the paper’s executive editor Dean Baquet says, “great stories trump everything else.”
In a sense, The Fourth Estate is a weapon against fake news. In one scene, the series shows Trump up on a podium claiming the press are “the enemy of the people” with “no sources.” In another, a camera is pointed at journalists talking to sources and hustling to get their story straight.
“We are not a comprehensive history of the political year,” Garbus clarifies in an interview with EW. “We do not follow everything that happened, but we are able to look at some of the biggest stories that our reporters broke and the ones that really advanced the story over the course of the year.”
The Fourth Estate premieres on Showtime this Sunday, May 27, at 7: 30 p.m. ET. Subsequent episodes will air at 8 p.m. ET.
Read on for our interview with Garbus.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you decide on The New York Times? Why not The Washington Post, CNN, or one of the many other media outlets that Trump has branded fake news?
LIZ GARBUS: Right? It’s a long list to choose from. I’m a native New Yorker, born and raised, so I suppose The New York Times has always been at my doorstep and has always been what I consider to be the paper of record. And, obviously, The Washington Post and The [Wall Street] Journal and many other outlets right now are killing it, but for me [The Times] was a go to.
Really the idea started when Trump was tweeting 10 days after he was elected about a meeting he was gonna have with The New York Times and he first was like, “I’m canceling this meeting because they changed the rules,” and The New York Times answered back saying, “Actually, the rules are the same, we won’t go off the record with the president,” and then Trump tweeted that the meeting was back on and he did go ahead and have the meeting.
Trump is a New Yorker. He’s from Queens, and I feel like in the way a lot of people feel about The New York Times who are from New York — when you’re in The Times, it means something — is probably how Trump felt about it. I remember a story that The Times did about his daughter Ivanka since he was president, and him holding up the fact that there was a picture of Ivanka on the front of The New York Times, even though the article was somewhat tough on Ivanka. So I think that there’s this way that it holds a very important real estate in his brain about the media and it seemed like the right place to be.
I would imagine there had to have been a fast turnaround time from November 2016 to when you first started filming with the inauguration. Was there a concern that you wouldn’t have been able to find a home for this project?
I wasn’t worried about finding a home so much as getting The Times on board. I felt like if I could get the access that I ultimately ended up getting that there would be a lot of interest in the show. So I was just really focused on getting up and running by Inauguration Day, which I did and shortly thereafter we put together a sample reel and pitched it to different networks and Showtime, of course, was ultimately our partner.
I read that article you wrote for The Times about the genesis of this project and toward the end you were asking the question, what is The Times‘ perspective? Why would they give you all of this access? And you didn’t really know at the time. Has that been made more clear to you as you’ve gone on?
No. I don’t think there was ever anybody who said here’s X, Y, and Z of why we allowed unprecedented access to our newsroom during one of the most tense times in journalism. [Laughs] I think it’s both emotional and strategic. I think that Dean Baquet has a reflex towards transparency. There was an understanding that journalists and journalism were gonna be under attack and that the best way to combat that was to show the seriousness and humanity of the people behind the stories, and I think you see how careful they are.
You see in episode 1 how Mark Mazzetti and his team lose a story to The Washington Post because while they have it, they still wanna get more data on it, or when you see Jeremy Peters go to CPAC and he’s meeting people who say you’re the opposition party, but then as soon as they meet Jeremy and they’re like, “Oh, you seem nice!” So it’s as soon as you put that face and that person behind it, it almost doesn’t seem like that two-horned demon. I think at the end of the day that had to be a huge motivating factor, and I think it’s why they did the daily too just for people to get to know these journalists behind the stories.
How did you begin to pick your starting point for a documentary like this and which benchmarks you felt needed to be included along the way?
The starting point was the easiest part because the starting point was the Inauguration Day. That was as soon as we could get our cameras rolling. At the end of the day, I guess it’s the same thing that you do in all of your documentary films, which is, you’re following character and also you want the tentpole events. We are not a comprehensive history of the political year. We do not follow everything that happened, but we are able to look at some of the biggest stories that our reporters broke and the ones that really advanced the story over the course of the year.
How do you maintain your position as a documentarian and not transform into a journalist yourself, especially when you’re, so to speak, in the trenches?
I guess it depends how you define those terms — journalist and documentarian. There’s obviously crossover. I’m making a long-form film that is not about breaking stories, it’s about getting deeper into them. I don’t think it had to do with the access that we had that is behind those questions. You dream for great access in every documentary that you make. I guess I don’t really understand the question because I think that following these characters is really what documentarians do whether it’s a character on a high school basketball team or reporters at The Times. You follow them and you create a long-form story.
You ended up answering my question anyway. The lines are so blurred between documentarian and journalist especially when you’re a documentarian covering journalists.
I also remember a lot of reporters were saying they experienced harassment from Trump supporters, especially at events like rallies. Since you went to CPAC and events like that, did you or your camera crew experience that hostility?
No. CPAC in particular, as soon as they would actually meet Jeremy and talk to Jeremy, they were like, “You seem nice, you’re fine, maybe The Times isn’t the resistance.” I think all of a sudden they understand that there is actually just serious journalists trying to get the story right working there, so at CPAC it was fine.
I think that the rally you see in episode 3 in Phoenix, Arizona with Mark Landler, that felt tense. Trump was riling up the crowd and instead of them chanting “lock her up” like they did in the campaign, they’re chanting “CNN sucks” and “you’re fake news,” and if you heard in that scene somebody says “you don’t love our country.” When people are getting that rowdy, you get a little tense. Yeah, I won’t lie. But you saw Mark Landler stay until the bitter end. He was one of the last reporters there, and you get through it.
Are you ever concerned that this series might just be preaching to the choir?
I think we just always hope that our films get out beyond our own media bubbles, and I think Showtime has been doing an amazing job promoting it. And I think if there was a documentary behind the scenes at Breitbart or a documentary behind the scenes at Fox, I would be really, really curious to see how that all worked. So I suppose I hope that folks that might be more inclined to watch Fox News might feel similarly curious about this one.
There were a few moments with the director of the newsroom in New York and the Washington bureau chief where they seem comfortable telling the camera that Trump is a liar. So I’m curious if you got an impression while you were filming why these reporters were a little more hesitant to use words like “lies” in their articles?
It’s a very good question, and we have a whole scene in episode 4 dealing with that exact question. Dean Baquet, at the end of the day, gives his mantra and guiding principle about using the word “lie.” Reporters don’t choose the headlines, right? They write the stories, they report the facts. It’s the editors who are making decisions about which words go in headlines and which words don’t. So it’s not out of the reporter’s control, but you can see [Baquet] has really strong thoughts on that and I think people will be enlightened about that debate.
A male reporter, who’s on the Russian team, is shown in a cab tweeting and getting responses on Twitter that’s congratulatory. Later on you do a similar scene with Maggie Haberman. She tweets something and a lot of the feedback she gets are insults. Is that disparity between a male reporter and a female reporter something you address later on?
Well, I think you see it. Maggie and Mike Schmidt can write a story together, and Trump will decide to disparage the story and only call out Maggie by name. You’ll also see people saying, “The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman only wrote about Hillary [Clinton]’s emails and that’s why Trump won.” Maggie wasn’t on the Hillary campaign. She was covering the Trump campaign. She wasn’t writing about the emails. First of all, she’s a very public face. People like to disparage her for anything that comes out of The Times, and second of all, why is it easier to choose a woman as a punching bag? I think it’s something that’s a very good question for us to discuss.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the time slot for the premiere episode. The Fourth Estate premieres this Sunday at 7:30 p.m. ET. on Showtime. Subsequent episodes will air at 8 p.m. ET.