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Power clash

New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman talks with filmmaker Liz Garbus as the crew films scenes for the Showtime documentary series ‘The Fourth Estate’ at Times headquarters in New York (T.J. Kirkpatrick/Showtime)

Television

Power clash

The Fourth Estate provides an up-close but uncritical look at New York Times reporters covering Donald Trump’s unorthodox presidency

Every journalist’s dream is to be in the room where history takes place. Now viewers can be in the newsroom where newsmaking happens through Showtime’s documentary The Fourth Estate. The four-part series captures the frenetic news cycle at The New York Times during Donald J. Trump’s first year as president.

It begins on “Day One”— the day Trump is sworn into office. A camera zooms in to Times reporters’ faces as they watch Trump’s inaugural speech on TV. One person covers her face with her hands. “Wow,” says Executive Editor Dean Baquet with an incredulous smile. “What a story. What a [obscenity] story.” Then he swings out of his chair: “OK, let’s go!”

That pretty much sums up the Times’ reaction to the Trump administration: Disbelief, alarm, excitement, and determination to pen this extraordinary moment in history. With that sentiment, they report on FBI Director James Comey’s memos, Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia, Trump’s decision to end DACA, and the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

You’ll hear editors regularly ask their writers, “What’s the nut graf?” In journalism, a “nut graf” is a paragraph that informs readers why they should care about the story. The nut graf for this documentary seems to be: “Here’s an inexperienced, ego-driven, billionaire president who can’t seem to keep his thumbs off Twitter and women, who has trouble telling the truth, and who stokes hostility against mainstream media. Neither the left nor the right trusts each other to tell the truth, which means that now, more than ever, the nation needs good journalism that pursues the truth and exposes lies with honor, integrity, and balance.”

Meanwhile, the Times has its own internal conflicts. Staff members, mostly copy editors, are losing their jobs as the news company moves from a print to a digital model. The Times is attracting a larger-than-ever audience to its website and podcast, yet it has not quite mastered how to turn eyeballs into profit, and the digital age is producing its own headaches: When the National Rifle Association releases an anti-press advertisement directed at the Times, top executives decide not to address it for fear of engaging in a media war—but before they can announce that to their staff, a Times reporter tweets out the ad and unleashes a Twitter storm. Then in December, several women accuse Glenn Thrush, one of the Times most esteemed White House reporters, of sexual harassment. Suddenly, the very newspaper that won a Pulitzer Prize for its investigations into Harvey Weinstein now has to deal publicly with a harassment case of its own.

What makes The Fourth Estate so engrossing is its access to the most intimate moments of those who wield the power to define news. It shows the editors calling Thrush into the conference room before they suspend him for sexual misconduct. It enters the reporters’ private homes and shows them microwaving oatmeal for breakfast. It shows White House correspondent Maggie Haberman hurrying out of a podcast interview to calm her crying child on FaceTime. It sits with Haberman in a cab as she reads tweets calling her out for being too “soft” on Trump.

My one complaint is that director/producer Liz Garbus seems a little too enamored with her subjects to portray them through a critical lens. She depicts the Times’ journalists as tireless crusaders who sacrifice family time and Valentine’s Day plans to cover the next crisis, the next scandal, the next exposé—and that’s true. But rather than question legitimate concerns about media bias, the series focuses on Trump’s tirades calling the media “fake news,” “the enemy of the people,” and “sick people.” (The documentary also includes occasional swearing throughout.)

At a time when the media are as much under the microscope as the White House, The Fourth Estate is still a worthy, if sometimes incomplete, look into how the nation’s most powerful newspaper covers the world’s most powerful man.