The Fourth Estate: The New York Times’s love/hate of Donald Trump
Review: This riveting All-the-Presidents-Men-style documentary ultimately plays Trump’s game
The Fourth Estate is a reassuring glamorisation of the tough talk of news media. Everyone is underslept and under pressure. Leads get spiked, sources get protected
Such is the unending torrent of lies, incompetency and cruelty from the Trump administration, that even watching Liz Garbus’s slick documentary about the New York Times as it covers the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, risks missing out on fresher insults and outrages.
It’s a disorienting feeling, for instance, watching The Fourth Estate (RTÉ One, Tuesday, 11.35pm) as the journalists of an embattled newspaper hurriedly “write, post and alert” their scoops of unprecedented political debasement – “AMERICAN CARNAGE” “BLAME ON BOTH SIDES” “TRUMP GIVES WHITE SUPREMACISTS UNEQUIVOCAL BOOST” – even as your phone is pinging something newer and crazier.
“Trump just tweeted,” announces one reporter, gravely. There’s not much difference between the newsroom’s reaction and those of any decent public. Oh, God. What now?
More of the same, it seems. As the programme broadcast on Tuesday reminded you of the summary rescindment, by Jeff Sessions, of DACA, a programme designed to protect children of immigrants born in the US, you may have been reviewing Sessions’ recent defence of the Trump administration’s policy to separate migrant children from their parents at the Mexican border and incarcerate them in cages.
“The Trump era has made immigration toxic,” sighs one reporter at an NYT news conference, from more than a year ago. There, Trump is consistent.
Garbus approached the documentary series with a gimlet eye for inherent drama. The US media had been designated “fake news” and “the opposition party”. Trump, obsessed with the paper, refers only to it as “the failing New York Times”, yet his accidental chronicler, Maggie Haberman, seems very well informed about background information, impending firings, you name it.
“You get tired of saying, Holy shit, because you’d be saying it every three hours,” she breathes, breaking the news of Steve Bannon’s ousting in the wake of the fatal Charlottesville riots.
That, however, is clearly fake news, because no New York Times journalist will ever get tired of swearing. The Fourth Estate may be a very serviceable recap of the gaslighting of America and the world, but it is also a reassuring glamorisation of the tough talk and dogged pursuits of news media.
Everyone is underslept and under pressure. Leads get spiked, sources get protected. Staff walk out. There may be an odd comedy in seeing them attempt to put a sober headline to a new account of insanity, but the general tone, enhanced by a moody Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross soundtrack, is of All the Presidents Men shot in real time.
That will strike many as an strange effort in auto-dramatisation.
Indeed, it builds up characters in detail, like truth-to-power-speaking, staff-downsizing editor Dean Baquet, or Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller, labouring over a standing desk and a pile of satsumas, or Glenn Thrush, the eccentrically hatted reporter who worries early about including a sexist comment, yet will soon be dismissed for allegations of sexual misconduct.
“I’m an absolutist with booze or…” he hesitates. “Other things. I need to cut it off completely.” Famous last words.
Here, again, the New York Times threatens to become the story, steadily more aware that its reporting on Harvey Weinstein, MeToo and everything after, is its other major beat. But Trump has made the media the story, and it’s still chilling to see him whip up scorn at a rally.
The Fourth Estate starts to look like a counter story in a propaganda war. It’s certainly a riveting one, but they’re playing Trump’s game.
When one episode of the series is called “The Trump Bump” that cuts pretty close to the bone. If you have helped to create a monster, how can you hope to keep him in check?