Elisabeth Bumiller, Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, was clearly furious at her bosses in Manhattan.
“Fuck them,” she muttered under her breath, late one February night last year, seconds after learning that editors at the Times’ Midtown mothership had ordered a complete rewrite of the lead in the D.C. bureau’s carefully crafted team effort on President Donald Trump’s maiden speech to a joint session of Congress. (Washington’s draft had highlighted immigration policy; New York’s revision stressed Trump’s stated wish—in retrospect, comically insincere—to avoid “trivial fights.”)
“They can fire me, I don’t care,” Bumiller grumbled. “Somebody else can do this job.”
White House reporter Michael D. Shear answered a nearby telephone and informed Bumiller that New York wanted to speak to her.
“No, I’m busy,” she snapped, refusing the call, although she also laughed a mirthless laugh at the high-handed, bureaucratic absurdity of the situation. “I’m not talking to them.”
The scene, an especially vivid illustration of the time-honored institutional hostility between the Gray Lady’s Washington bureau and the New York command center, happened to be captured by a camera crew.
Although Bumiller knew she was being filmed and undoubtedly keeping her temper in check (stifling the yells and colorful curses that such an affront would ordinarily deserve) it remains one of many naked moments in The Fourth Estate.
The first installment of Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus’s Showtime series—which received its world premiere Saturday night at the Tribeca Film Festival—debuts May 27 on the premium cable channel and continues for three more episodes offering an intimate, occasionally uncomfortable exposé of how the newspaper of record is navigating the strange and alarming Age of Trump.
Garbus’s series, with the narrative arc defined by the political chaos seemingly orchestrated by Trump and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of alleged collusion with Russian actors, will show bleary-eyed Times journalists making pre-dawn breakfast at home while listening to Morning Joe (Bumiller); getting their kids out of bed, dropping berries on the kitchen floor and apparently re-plating them (Matthew Rosenberg); and even coping with the painful consequences of sexual harassment allegations (Glenn Thrush, who was initially suspended by his bosses and eventually restored to active duty).
It will show the Times getting beat on major stories by the rival Washington Post—an agonizing defeat—and then scooping the Post on other blockbusters.
In one scene, filmed during last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, political reporter Jeremy Peters tries to keep a poker face and fails miserably when the president brands journalists “the enemy of the people” and the ecstatic crowd lets out a blood-curdling roar.
“I was anxious, but I wouldn’t say ‘resistant,’” Executive Editor Dean Baquet told The Daily Beast, describing his initial reaction when assistant editor Sam Dolnick approached him more than a year ago with the idea of inviting camera- and microphone-wielding outsiders to shadow Times reporters and editors for months on end.
Dolnick is spearheading the paper’s efforts to expand the presentation of Times journalism across a variety of platforms (and, by the way, happens to a member of the controlling Sulzberger family).
“I’m a journalist, and whenever you allow a journalist into your world, you run the risk that things happen that you regret, that they will see things that you regret,” Baquet continued, fully aware of the irony of his remark. “But in the end I thought this was historic, and that the staff of the New York Times would be seen as honorable, and if we had little quirks and little screw-ups, I trusted that if people got a glimpse of life inside The New York Times, they would like it.”
Maggie Haberman, who’s continually on camera noting how exhausted she is, is the paper’s supremely well-connected White House correspondent who only a few days ago was attacked on Twitter by the president as a “third rate reporter” and “Crooked H flunkie who I don’t speak to and have nothing to do with”—never mind that she has covered Trump for the past two decades and interviewed him in the Oval Office and by phone on numerous occasions.
The perpetually commuting Haberman, who is based in New York but attached to the Washington bureau, was dutifully cooperative with Garbus, allowing a camera crew to tail her onto the Acela—like her automobile, a second home—but declined the director’s request to visit her house in Brooklyn.
“I didn’t want my children on camera,” said Haberman, who is shown on Episode I sitting against a wall on the floor of the Times newsroom, gazing into an iPhone and consoling a young child who desperately misses his mother. “Oh, honey, I love you so much,” she comforts the disconsolate kid.
“I wish that scene weren’t there; it is what it is,” she told The Daily Beast. “The downside is we have to be careful what gets observed and what is not. The upside is people see how seriously we take the work… But I’m a subscriber to the line from Broadcast News where Albert Brooks sarcastically says, ‘Let’s never forget that we’re the real story.’”
Baquet, meanwhile, said he ultimately endorsed the project because “I fully believe in the place and the people. The worst-case scenario is we say some things we regret. The best-case scenario is people see how hard we work, how much we try to get it right, and how honorably we try to cover the world. I also thought she [Garbus] was a good filmmaker—that’s the other part.”
Garbus—who is known for such films as Bobby Fisher Against the World, a chronicle of the troubled chest master, and Nothing Left Unsaid, a poignant exploration of Anderson Cooper’s relationship with his mother Gloria Vanderbilt—realized the dramatic potential of a documentary about Trump’s dysfunctional love-hate relationship with the Times two weeks after the election.
That was on a Novemeber 2016 morning when the press-bashing president-elect and the Trump-critiquing newspaper waged a Twitter argument concerning the ground rules of a scheduled lunch, which Trump summarily cancelled, but ultimately attended, even though the Times insisted it would be on the record.
“I’m a daughter of a First Amendment lawyer. I felt that this was something I wanted to look at and bring attention to…It’s in my DNA,” said Garbus, whose famous father, Martin Garbus, played a role in steering the Pentagon Papers to the Times, defended Lenny Bruce and Salman Rushdie, and even supported American neo-Nazis’ right to march through the heavily Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois, in 1977.
Through a friend at the newspaper, New York Times Magazine staff writer Jonathan Mahler, Garbus pitched her idea to Dolnick, who quickly warmed to the idea of independent camera crews freely roaming the premises, and secured the approval of his cousin, Times publisher Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, and the latter’s father, Times Co. Chairman Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr.
“I was really intrigued from a story-telling point of view,” said Dolnick, himself a prize-winning reporter before he joined the Times masthead. “It’s an electric moment in the newsroom. The reporters are real people, not just gray bylines, and I thought a project like this could go a long way toward humanizing reporters and showing the lengths we go to, to report a story as consequential as this.”
Dolnick added: “To his great credit, Dean’s bias is towards transparency. He recognized that this was a giant story and he believed we don’t have anything to hide. Come in and see how the sausage is made!”
The only restrictions: Times journalists would be able to review each episode in advance of broadcast to make sure no confidential sources or off the record conversations were inadvertently revealed; also, upper management would not require journalists to participate, and Garbus would need to forge her own relationships with people in the newsroom in order to gain their trust. (It didn’t hurt, of course, that it was widely known at the paper that the Sulzbergers were bullish.)
When I told Garbus, during a phone interview, that journalists are naturally suspicious and there was absolutely no way that I would ever allow her to follow me around, she retorted: “Just you wait till I turn on the charm!”
For more than a year—beginning with Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration and lasting until less than two weeks ago, when the Times shared the National Reporting Pulitzer Prize with the Washington Post for their coverage of the norm-shattering 45th president—Garbus and her team were essentially embedded in the Washington and New York newsrooms.
They ultimately did 120 days of filming—the documentary equivalent of the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy—to accumulate around 500 hours of footage shot on Canon C300 Mark II high-definition digital cameras.
In the end, the finished product—Episode 4 is nearly in the can—“creates just wonderful narrative themes, suspense and drama, great characters, and all those traditional elements that drive toward great movies and scripted fare,” said Showtime executive Vinnie Malhotra, who oversees documentaries, including the political series The Circus.
“Even if you’re not so familiar with the Maggie Habermans and Elisabeth Bumillers of the world, they [Team Garbus] have done such a remarkable job with their access. We’re inside the conference room talking about the Russia investigation. That energy feeds into it. I’m hoping that it reaches a pretty broad audience.”
Malhotra added he’s eager for Season 2: “We would love the opportunity of keeping it going. Obviously it’s a little bit of wait-and-see.”
The Fourth Estate premieres Sunday May 27 at 8 p.m. on Showtime.