On November 22, 2016, Liz Garbus realized, with a jolt of clarity, the subject of her next project. In the past, Garbus, an acclaimed documentarian, had profiled influential figures like Nina Simone in What Happened, Miss Simone?, and Bobby Fischer in Bobby Fischer Against the World. But this next subject would be bitingly, bracingly of the movement.
Because on November 22, Garbus — like many of us — identified one of the primary antagonistic relationships that would define the Trump administration: The president versus the press. On that day, Donald Trump abruptly canceled a meeting with the New York Times, explaining in a Twitter burst that the Times had changed the terms of their meeting. Essentially, Trump was peeved the Times had refused to make the meeting off-the-record. Garbus, watching this unfold on Twitter, was enthralled. “That tension and antagonism felt, to me, like where I wanted to be. I wanted to be a fly on the wall of that room,” Garbus said.
What came out of her fascination was a four-part documentary called The Fourth Estate, airing on Showtime starting May 27. The Fourth Estate follows the Times’ coverage of the first 100 days of the Trump administration. While the rest of us tune in and out of the news, the subjects of Garbus’ documentary – including White House correspondent Maggie Haberman and Washington Bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller — work 17-hour days to cover each minute progression. The Fourth Estate documents the day-in, day-out, utterly tireless work of journalists following what Garbus calls “the story of a lifetime.”
We spoke to Garbus about the changing state of journalistm, and why those in the profession should be excited, not simply horrified, by the challenges of the Trump administration.
Refinery29: You had front row seats to the coverage of the Trump administration.
Liz Garbus: "It was very exciting, I have to say."
When did you know you wanted to make the Times the subject of your documentary?
"I’d become quite obsessed with Twitter during the election. On November 22, Donald Trump was tweeting at the New York Times, saying he was cancelling a scheduled meeting there because they’d changed the rules. One could see this dynamic developing after Hillary Clinton was no longer his adversary. The press was going to become his adversary. That was the way he was going to ally his base: To deride the press. If you anticipate the press will have questions about some of your policies or coverage that you’re not going to like, then deriding them and trying to undermine them is certainly a strategy to use."
"That tension and antagonism felt, to me, like where I wanted to be. I wanted to be a fly on the wall of that room, when Donald Trump goes to the New York Times. It seemed like a pipe dream. How would that ever work? But I had a friend who was a writer at the New York Times magazine. He introduced me to an editor at the Times and I made my pitch."
What were you selling the Times on during your pitch?
"I don’t know why they ultimately decided to give me the access they did. But what I can say, is if you’re under attack, and you have faith in your people and in your institution, maybe it’s a good idea to open the doors and let sunlight in and show people what you do. There were hard moments for them over the course of the year. But they, in their DNA, have a commitment to transparency. We rode along for the ride, once they decided to open their doors."
What was your reception by Times journalists like?
"I had the blessing from on high from [Executive Editor] Dean Baquet and editors, but it was up to each individual reporter or editor whether or not they were going to work with us. I think some were incredibly skeptical. There are some journalists who are very outward-facing and do a lot of media appearances and are on Twitter. And there are some who eschew that and do not want that to be part of their daily lives. Some people are comfortable, but for others, it required a leap of faith. The most difficult thing, and the thing that they pride most dearly, is their relationship with sources. How do we protect that, and not interfere with that? That was always the primary concern."
The days at the Times seem interminably long. Everyone works so hard all the time. How many hours a day were you and the journalists at the office?
"Their days start at 5:40, 6. One morning, we started with Elisabeth Bumiller at 5:30. Tweets start pouring in from the president in the early hours. She has to deal with the coverage of how, and if, they’re going to cover it. At nine or 10 at night, they’re still breaking stories. They’re 16 or 17 hour days, and it’s relentless."
The documentary alludes to the personal sacrifices the journalists are making. It seems that journalism to this degree requires a sublimation of self.
"Like [Washington investigative correspondent] Mark Mazzetti says [in the documentary], it’s Valentine’s Day, and he’s there at 10:00pm. Maggie talks a lot about her commitment to her kids. She commutes from Brooklyn to Washington. There are extraordinary sacrifices being made. Sometimes they feel like soldiers going off to leave their families and go and serve their country. It’s quite a lot of dedication."
The dedication is apparent. There’s a moment at the beginning when Dean Baquet smiles and seems invigorated. He says, “What a story.” How prevalent was that attitude of excitement, like the Times was on the crest of something huge about to happen?
"You definitely heard from many journalists that this was the story of a lifetime. It was such a huge political shift. Somebody who was in there trying to take a complete outsider's business approach to Washington — that had never happened before. There were so many mysteries to dive into. It is a story of a lifetime. If you’re not excited about that, you’re probably not going to last in journalism. I don’t think excitement should be confused for positivity or approval. You’ve got a job to do and you’ve got to do it. If you’re dreading it, that’s not going to work."
Your documentary is journalism in its own way. What surprised you about newspaper journalism versus documentary filmmaking?
"It’s really different. People often equate the two but I think that’s wrong. In the first episode, you see the Russia team working on this story about Mike Flynn and his calls with the Russian ambassador. They know the story but they can’t put it in the paper yet because they don’t have enough data. How diligent you have to be, and how many sources you have to get to confirm. Because if they make a mistake, they get killed. For a documentary filmmaker, obviously we have to be accurate and faithful, but we can have a whole film around one person’s voice and opinion. Point of view for us is something we love. It’s a very different medium."
These reporters are constantly plugged in. How do you think these reporters manage to keep a center of gravity, and not spiral?
"I think they have to take breaks. Their editors will tell them, you need to take a vacation. Or, you need to go off Twitter for a few hours. I think they’re built for this. If this is a story of a lifetime, you want to be there covering it. So they do it. On the first day, the day of the inauguration, and I was in the Washington Bureau, I realized that a lot of the Russia team had covered wars before. They’d been in Afghanistan and Iraq. There was a pace that they had become accustomed to. They could remain cool amid that chaos. They’re bringing that to their work now."
What do you hope viewers take away from this up-close look at journalism?
"First of all, it can be a pretty cool career. I think if I had seen this in college it might’ve inspired me to go into journalism. If the country is at war, the president is at war with them, they’re at work. They’re sitting there, getting their sourcing, checking it twice, checking it five times. They are there and at work. The office doesn't feel like you’re in the Democratic Headquarters. Some of those myths about what the New York Times is will be dispelled in this documentary. I just think you see the dedication of these folks and the sacrifices they make. These are people working hard and trying their best to get it right. I think we should respect that."