The Fourth Estate (2018)
Directed by: Liz Garbus | 87 minutes | documentary
“Fake news!” If there’s one term that has gained popularity in the last two years, it’s this one. Regular recipients include The (“Failing”) New York Times. The newspaper, together with The Washington Post, is good for many stories about Trump and Russia. And this to the clear dismay of the president, who also appears to have a lifelong obsession with the newspaper.
Trump and The New York Times are clearly each other’s yin and yang and this interdependence is the subject of the four-part documentary series ‘The Fourth Estate’. Documentary maker Liz Garbus (known for ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’) takes a look behind the scenes from Trump’s inauguration. Episode 1 is titled “The First 100 Days,” thus showing the start-up period of the Trump administration as seen from the newsmakers. Garbus has interviews with the star reporters, editors and editors and follows the news process closely.
This provides an interesting look behind the scenes. What the maker wants to make clear in the first episode is that the journalists do not seem to know much about the new situation yet. They are shadow boxing. They do throw blows, but their “opponent” doesn’t seem to be affected. As a traditional daily newspaper, how do you deal with those in power who don’t play by the rules? This question seems to be the basis from which Garbus started and which she regularly returns to.
In addition, there are plenty of other topics that are covered. For example, the competition with The Washington Post is a theme, as is the impact of the work on the reporters. This is illustrated very clearly by a scene in which Jeremy Peters attends a convention of conservatives. In an interview with a visitor, Peters is called the enemy with a frightening obviousness, only to be named an enemy of the people during a Trump speech. The camera is then nicely close to Peters and the discomfort is palpable.
Episode 2 begins with the firing of FBI Director James Comey. The ultimate surprise that this causes among the journalists is typical of the second part. Sometimes they really don’t know what to do with the new situation and traditional forms of journalism don’t seem to withstand the “Trump storm”. This search also has repercussions on business operations. In part 2, we see a temporary work stoppage as a result of the editorial board’s decision to hire more investigative journalists at the expense of editors and copywriters. However, if The New York Times wants to remain relevant and compete against new forces, that is a necessary evil.
Part 3 is the heaviest part of all episodes. It begins with the mind-boggling events in Charlottesville where a neo-Nazi crashes into a mob. The impact of this event is the framework within which the rest of the events must be viewed. And within that framework, Trump’s response is bizarre. He does not condemn the extreme right groups, but stands up for them (to a certain extent). The humiliation this evokes is almost tangible for journalists. This feeling lingers throughout the episode.
The final episode feels like more of the same and is a perfect metaphor for the situation in ‘The Fourth Estate’. As a viewer, you actually think a lot less about the madness in which journalists have to do their work. It feels like “business as usual”, while if you think about it a little longer, the whole situation is too crazy for words. It’s amazing that The New York Times reporters continue to do their job like this.
Because that is actually what sticks with you most: the passion with which the journalists do their work. Hunting for news, working under strict deadlines, doing socially relevant work: everything is done with dedication. It is not pronounced so directly, but it can be felt in almost every scene. That is also a point of criticism of the documentary. It does feel a bit like “grandstanding”: the series seems (also) made to honor the journalists and the institute. The final scene certainly contributes to it. That is perhaps the American sauce about a documentary that is certainly interesting enough in terms of content.