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Showtime's The Fourth Estate
It's been awhile. I'm hoping to take fewer months-long absences between newsletter editions, but this is unfortunately not always easy to predict (as it's largely dependent on work commitments, travel, etc.). In any event, below are my brief thoughts on Showtime's recent four-part documentary The Fourth Estate. Please let me know what you think by replying to this email, and tell your friends to subscribe too. Thank you!
Filmmaker Liz Garbus' four-part Showtime documentary The Fourth Estate, which began airing on May 27, is a remarkably candid peek at The New York Times as its reporters chase the stories of a lifetime, absorb (and, at times, parry) enormous political and public criticism, and joust with public figures who combine unusually vitriolic public condemnation of the press with a virtually unprecedented thirst for media approval in private.
OK, so that last part is largely about Steve Bannon. In the third and fourth episodes, political reporter Jeremy Peters spends time with Bannon at the "Breitbart embassy," his lavishly adorned Washington townhouse, as well as in Alabama, where Bannon is stumping for then-Senate candidate Roy Moore, an accused child molester.
Although Bannon's cameos mercifully occupy a relatively minor role in the documentary, they nevertheless illustrate a central paradox of Trumpworld: the political figures quickest to point the finger at the press are simultaneously cultivating close ties to journalists behind the scenes.
In one particularly amusing sequence filmed in a car on the way to a Roy Moore rally, Bannon congratulates Peters on his new book: "Congratulations, dude. Your life just changed," then proceeds onstage to deliver his stump speech, jauntily informing the crowd: "Fake news: we got them all here today. Financial Times of London, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal..." As Peters notes: "For all these guys' bravado about the media being the opposition party and the evil New York Times, there were at least two reporters from mainstream media outlets backstage at Bannon's invitation...We're a useful punching bag."
This is a view clearly shared by the president himself, whose frequent, hallucinatory tweeted condemnations of the press appear as transitory text bubbles onscreen, harshly juxtaposed against the reality: reporter Maggie Haberman taking Trump's incoming call directly from the Times newsroom. Garbus' message is clear: this White House wields misinformation as a cudgel, while implicitly acknowledging the crucial role of venerable news organizations in shaping public opinion.
The Times, which has received its fair share of criticism -- so I've heard, anyway -- for Trump coverage often perceived as timid and cautious, comes off rather well here. Garbus' work is clearly something of a love letter: reporters and editors are portrayed as cautious and discerning in the face of unprecedented competitive pressure from The Washington Post, an unseen army of critics-in-waiting, and a presidential administration uniquely comfortable with borrowing the authoritarian playbook on media relations. Perhaps most impressive of all is their clock speed: articles are written, revised, and copyedited seemingly simultaneously, with online publishing timetables making print deadlines look positively languid by comparison.
Within the comfortable confines of the newsroom, New York Times reporters appear savvy about President Trump's rhetorical strategy and his administration's historically aberrational disregard for American institutions. Sleep-deprived editors fret openly about the newspaper losing sight of just how extraordinary each individual breaking news event is, in an era saturated with them. Executive editor Dean Baquet, in a mostly reflective mood after his newspaper won three Pulitzer Prizes, strikes a note of defiance: "It's been a hard year. The day-in and day-out attacks on us: that hurts us. But this has happened in history. During the civil rights movement, in Vietnam, a lot of people attacked news organizations like The New York Times -- called them bad, evil, outside agitators.
All I can say is, those guys are gone. And The New York Times is still here."