Donald Trump

'Okay, Let’s Go': Watching the New York Times on Trump

By Benjamin Wittes
Tuesday, May 29, 2018, 12:37 PM

Liz Garbus’s new documentary series, "The Fourth Estate," opens with Donald Trump taking the oath of office on January 20, 2017, but it doesn’t linger long on the new president. After a few seconds of him repeating the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, it cuts to a cityscape of New York, then to the New York Times building, then to the newsroom, where a group of Times reporters and editors are watching the inauguration on television. The paper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, is leaning back in a chair, his hands pressed together.

“Wow,” he says quietly, “What a story! What a fucking story.” He pauses, and then says loudly, “Okay, let’s go.”

I am not a press triumphalist. One of my earliest Washington Post columns, back during the Starr-Clinton wars, argued that commentators should not kid themselves that leaks are good, just because they are good for the press. “In our capacity as news-gatherers,” the young twenty-something me wrote,

we should be aggressive about soliciting leaks and coaxing officials to provide them. We should feel free to print stories about sealed court documents. And we should, of course, protect our sources and offer no cooperation to investigations designed to uncover them. In our capacity as commentators, however, we should not draw a false equivalence between the press's interest and the public interest. We do not impair our reporting by admitting that a government that cannot shut up is less good for society at large than it is good for us. And we can acknowledge that the damage done by some leaks is greater than the value of the stories the leaks yield.

I have always held to this view—not a popular one among my former colleagues in the press corps. I have never been a particular believer in the press’s self-image. I have always believed, in a general sense, that liberal media bias is real. I have always hated when members of the press treat the brutality of their profession—which is, indeed, sometimes quite brutal—as reflecting nothing more than democratic virtue and when they view the First Amendment as a general entitlement to wield power unaccountably. And I really don’t like it when the press celebrates the press.

I should, in short, have a healthy skepticism about Garbus’s new series—which is a deep dive into, and celebration of, the journalism of the New York Times in the first year of the Trump presidency. The four-part documentary series, which began airing this weekend, is the result of the astonishing access Garbus received to the Times’s newsroom, to the Washington bureau, to the reporting staff, and to the editorial leadership over the year beginning with Trump’s inauguration. The Times made a decision to cooperate with Garbus, to let her film the paper doing its journalism for a year. The result is a series that is, in significant respects, triumphalist about the press and its work. Under other circumstances I would probably be at least a little bit cynical about it.

I am not even a little bit cynical about "The Fourth Estate."

Immediately after showing Baquet marveling at the oddness of Trump’s inauguration, the film shows the editorial conference that took place moments later between him and the paper’s Washington Bureau. It shows them puzzling through how to write about it. Was it really as dark as it seemed to them? Does “American carnage” belong in a headline?

“I guess what I want to gut-check from the three of you is,” Baquet asks Washington Bureau Chief Elisabeth Bumiller and White House reporters Maggie Haberman and Peter Baker, “was this a particularly dark....”

“Yes,” they all respond without letting him finish.

In the current environment, "The Fourth Estate" is a tremendously important project, documenting in riveting detail the craft of journalism conducted under the most difficult circumstances modern American democracy has presented. At a time when the very idea of independent, fair-minded reportage is under daily assault from the White House itself, it documents what the effort looks like when serious people devote themselves to it in a serious way over a sustained period of time. This isn’t a film about breaking a particular story, so the narrative arc is necessarily more diffuse than in "All the President’s Men" or, more recently, "The Post." Instead, "The Fourth Estate" is a film about what it means to produce a newspaper in a time like the one we are living through. The Times deserves a great deal of credit for cooperating with Garbus. And Garbus certainly deserves the plaudits she will likely receive for this piece of work.

Before going any further, let me acknowledge that a skeptic of my own lack of skepticism here might well—and reasonably—point out that I have some skin in the game. That skeptic would be more right than he or she likely knows, so let me give a full disclosure of the several reasons someone might choose to discount as hopelessly biased my view of this particular piece of work. First, I went to elementary school with Garbus—with whom I reconnected on Twitter after more than thirty years of being out of touch while she was working on this project. She and I talked a fair bit during the time she was filming, during which time I also got to know her husband, Dan Cogan, one of the makers of the recent film, Icarus, about which I was publicly enthusiastic. The three of us have, in recent weeks, in a very preliminary fashion begun talking about working on a project together. Perhaps more significantly, I know a bunch of the reporters and editors featured in "The Fourth Estate" and, in fact, am discussed (not by name) in the second episode in connection with information I provided Times reporter Michael Schmidt following the firing of James Comey. This is, in short, a film by someone I know about people I know. And anyone who considers that hopelessly biasing should feel free to read no further.

The first important aspect of this series is just how rich a portrait it offers of the task of producing journalism. Because it is not the story of a single story, and because Garbus had to agree to keep all source identifications out of the film, it does not get into detail often about how individual reporters get individual stories. It does, however, show a lot of newsroom meetings, a lot of discussions of the right way to report fact patterns, a lot of reporters working the phones and on the road covering events.

The portrait that emerges is of a newspaper that is occasionally arrogant and sometimes very much the sort of East Coast elite institution that is out of touch with the political movement that has taken over the country. But mostly, it is an institution working honorably—even movingly—to be aggressive, truthful, and fair. It is an institution that argues over the use of specific words, that checks and rechecks facts before publishing, that hates getting beat on a story but prefers getting beat to being wrong. Along the way, Garbus pauses to situate the journalism the Times is doing against the changes the industry is experiencing at this time and the stresses the paper is under. It is very hard to watch "The Fourth Estate" without admiring the Times’s struggle—a variant of which is taking place in parallel at other major news organizations that have sought to cover Trump seriously. At the macro level, Garbus’s series is a lengthy meditation on what it means in the modern political and economic climate to be serious and fair purveyors of information.

At a more micro level, "The Fourth Estate" is a series of fascinating portraits of people whose lives are consumed by Donald Trump—a reality with which I identify. At the film’s opening at the Tribeca Film Festival last month, much of the chatter after the screening was about how hard everyone seemed to be working. And indeed, the intensity of the experience of covering this story drips off the screen. It’s Schmidt hitting golf balls alone at a driving range at night, having explained earlier that this story is his life and that he doesn’t really do anything else. It’s Maggie Haberman assuring her child in New York by cell phone while walking down the street in Washington that it’s impossible to die from a nightmare and later explaining to Garbus in a taxi that she doesn’t know how to stop and reclaim her life from this story. It’s Executive Editor Dean Baquet having to, in the midst of the paper’s groundbreaking #metoo coverage, deal with sexual impropriety allegations against one of his star White House reporters, Glenn Thrush.

I confess that this aspect of Garbus’s film hit me in gut—and hard. A lot of people feel exhausted or energized or angered or empowered or demoralized by the Trump presidency. Relatively few live it 24/7. Relatively few have no jobs separate from it. For relatively few people does it wholly overtake who they are. "The Fourth Estate" is a film about a group of people who don’t think about other things anymore, who are no longer enjoying their usual hobbies and who aren’t having conversations about the things they used to talk about. I am another such person, and I can attest to the realism of the portrayal.

These portraits, both of people and of craft, are important at a time when the President is attacking the very idea of independent journalism. It is important, when the president claims the New York Times is making up sources and fabricating stories about him to watch how hard Mark Mazzetti and the national security investigative team actually work to find out what is true and what they can say responsibly. It is important that Garbus has captured video footage of Maggie Haberman on the phone with the president, so we can place in context his tweets that he never speaks to Haberman.

It is also important to see Haberman’s actual interactions with Trump, because Haberman gets criticized not just by Trump but also—as the film shows—by Trump critics angry that she maintains a cordial relationship and an open line of dialogue with him. You can see in "The Fourth Estate" the tightrope she is trying to walk: maintain a relationship in which she can ask him tough questions.

Two of the most chilling scenes in the series both involve reporter Jeremy Peters, who covers conservative politics. In the first episode, Peters attends the 2017 CPAC convention where Trump described the press as the “enemy of the people.” Garbus films him sitting at the press table typing while the president is intoning that “the news doesn’t tell the truth. . . . They have no sources. They just make them up. It’s fake, phony, fake.” She shows him wince when Trump says the words, “enemy of the people” to a crowd whipped up to the point of ecstatic hatred, a crowd that then stands and begins chanting, “USA! USA! USA!”

Later, in the fourth episode, Peters goes down to Alabama at the invitation of Steve Bannon—with whom he has a good relationship—to a rally for Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore. Garbus shows them driving together from the airport to the rally, having a friendly interview about the state of the Senate race. She shows Bannon congratulating Peters about his new book contract. She shows Bannon chummily telling Peters backstage at the rally about which Republican operative gave the Washington Post certain dirt on Roy Moore and why Moore’s rival in the primacy campaign, Luther Strange, didn’t use that dirt. And then she shows Bannon walk out on stage and denounce the “fake news,” including the New York Times, which he names specifically.

Notes Peters, “there were at least two reporters from mainstream media outlets backstage at Bannon’s invitation. I know that Steve doesn’t believe that we just make up sources. We’re a useful punching bag.”

In an environment in which the President and his top aides, current and former, behave this way, the depiction of what journalism actually consists of, what journalists actually do and don’t do, is more than a useful corrective. It is itself a form of journalism. And it is also a defense of a critical democratic function.

I have only two regrets about this series, both of which inhere in the nature of Garbus’s project and are probably inevitable. To do this film, Garbus had to agree to protect the Times’s sources. Sometimes that meant bleeping things out when people go off the record. Sometimes it meant not filming things. Sometimes it meant, I’m sure, not retaining footage. The inevitable result is that there is a critical point of view missing from the film: the point of view of the Times’s sources.

This is, as I say, probably inevitable, so I’m not criticizing when I say that it is regrettable absence. It is also not a complete absence. Garbus shows reporters on the phone with sources. She shows reporters working a room. She shows a few reporting trips, complete with interactions with journalistic subjects. And she shows, in the case of Peters’s relationship with Bannon, one reporter-source relationship relatively in depth. But in general, the sources are vapor. This is a shame, because it leaves a key piece of the story untold: how hard good reporters work to be fair to their sources without simply being mouthpieces for them, to check what their sources tell them, and to leverage that for more information. 

I was one of the Times’s sources described in episode 2 of "The Fourth Estate," specifically for a Schmidt story, published on May 18 of last year and entitled, “Comey, Unsettled by Trump, Is Said to Have Wanted Him Kept at a Distance.” The story of our interaction is interesting in this regard. I called Schmidt the day after he published his May 11 story about the Trump-Comey loyalty pledge dinner and told him I had more information for him. He came over to my office that day, and we had a long on-the-record interview, which I insisted he record. When I told him Comey and I had eaten lunch together on a number of occasions in Comey’s FBI office, he asked me to draw him a map of the office, which I did. Schmidt has since protested that he wasn’t trying to test me, just garnering details, but of course he was testing me to some extent.

I gave him a lot of information that day with which a lesser reporter, and a lesser news organization, would have raced into print. Schmidt and the Times did not. He spent six days doing additional reporting, checking what I had said to him against other sources, calling me repeatedly with follow-up questions. Along the way, he managed to pry loose from someone else additional information I had not known: that Comey had written memos about some of the same concerns he was talking to me about—a fact that led the story he eventually wrote. When he was done with his story, he turned the audio of our conversation, with my consent, over to the redoubtable Michael Barbaro, who hosts the Times’s podcast, The Daily. And Barbaro walked him through his reporting in an episode the ran the morning after Schmidt’s story.

Keep this process in mind the next time you hear Donald Trump say that the Times doesn’t have sources and just makes things up. I recount it here not to draw attention to myself but because when you watch Garbus’s film, you should mentally iterate it literally hundreds of times. This sort of source interaction—checking, rechecking, validating, leveraging, and negotiating—is the engine that’s driving the story Garbus is telling. It is largely, though not completely, invisible in the story as she is able to tell it on screen. But it is a huge part of what’s happening when the camera isn’t on.

This point has an important corollary, which Garbus also can’t show: the Times—along with every other media organization worth its salt—is withholding a huge amount of information. Garbus can’t show the footage she must have related to all the stories that didn’t quite get there, because she can’t break news the Times decided wasn’t yet “fit to print.” So you can’t see all the times when a story was almost there, when the reporters and editors were relatively confident that it was true but not quite confident enough to go with it. There are a lot of these stories. And not publishing them is as important a part of great journalism as the stories that a great newspaper does publish.

An example of this played out last night when the Daily Beast reported that: “As the Access Hollywood fallout spread, the TMZ tip line received an email from a lawyer in Los Angeles claiming to have another bombshell tape of Trump in an elevator in Trump Tower, seven sources familiar with the matter told The Daily Beast.” The tale of this tape, part of which the Daily Beast recounts in this story, has been kicking around the press for many months, with many reporters working on it over long periods of time. Yet nobody actually went with the story. The reason is simple: nobody has been able to nail it in a fashion that satisfies their journalistic standards. The result is that the story has not run.

While Trump, in other words, is alleging that the mainstream press is making up stories about him, the truth is closer to the exact opposite: that the mainstream press is, by mostly insisting on observing its own standards (there have been regrettable exceptions), often protecting the president from stories that are true and would be damaging. In Garbus’s film, we see only the story conferences about the stories that proved ready for prime time. As you watch the film, however, keep in mind that the flip side of the footage you’re seeing is the footage you’re not seeing about stories that weren’t yet ready—and may never be ready.

"The Fourth Estate" is more than a keyhole view of journalism in the age of Trump. It is a genuinely illuminating porthole—among the very best I have ever seen. Just keep in mind as you watch it that it is a porthole, not a panoramic shot, and that the journalism that takes place off screen is as important as what Garbus is able to show.