There’s never been a political administration like the Trump White House – ever. The Fourth Estate, a term used to describe the news media and press, is a necessary part of a healthy society; it’s the unbiased press’ role to hold the powers that be in check. In 2018, up is down and down is up, and the powers that be have launched an assault on the Fourth Estate. Co-directors Liz Garbus and Jenny Carchman’s new documentary, The Fourth Estate, chronicles the Trump administrations’ first 100 days in office. The film — the first in a four-part series — is told through the lens of The New York Times journalists covering the tumult.
Kudos to Garbus and Carchman for getting this documentary off the ground. A core tenet of journalism is not revealing confidential sources, and it’s tough for reporters to keep their sources on the down low when they’re mic’d up and shadowed by a documentary crew. The Times wouldn’t sign off on participating until producers made assurances that no accidental name drops or captured texts found their way into the film, and luckily for audiences, the film’s producers and The Times found an amicable agreement.
Watching journalists adapt to covering an untraditional administration is fascinating. (The film opens on inauguration day with the Times’ staff giving Trump the benefit of the doubt). Using hindsight, watching Trump’s first 100 is like watching the Titanic leave the harbour. By 2018, we’ve seen a year’s worth of scandals and a revolving door of disgraced flunkies. There’s some sardonic humour in watching key figures parade through the film while knowing what’s lays ahead (shout out to James Comey).
The Fourth Estate depicts authentic, in-the-trenches journalism; it’s not the romanticised movie version. It humanizes the staff by showing how hard they work and the toll their careers take on their personal lives, also devoting several segments to White House correspondent Maggie Haberman, who spends more time on the go than Alice in Wonderland‘s White Rabbit. When she’s not making the three-hour commute between Washington and New York, she’s in a cab multitasking between her smartphone and laptop. At one point, she steps away from recording a podcast to FaceTime with her child. The days of wrapping up as the paper goes to press are long gone. In an age when a Tweet can set off a media storm, reporters remain on call.
This demanding life isn’t just for star reporters. Garbus and Carchman show the news team working long into the dead of night. They huddle around computer screens, fact-checking quotes and perfecting ledes. Their job isn’t complete until they submit their work, it’s fact-checked, and their editor hits the button that says publish. But you also get the sense there’s no other place they would rather be, and do they ever work their asses off. When they smell a story, the reporters come across like wolves tracking down an injured faun.
I loved seeing the attention these reporters pay to details. The Times employs a world-class news team, and it’s a treat to see their process. They have rigorous standards meant to fortify their work from scrutiny, but above that, these men and women believe in the value of the news they’re breaking. They know what happens when no one holds the government to task. As for “fake news” enthusiasts, you can’t watch this film and believe that label applies. These journalists go to extraordinary lengths to pull quotes from sources and follow up on leads. Fact-checkers and the editors scour every word of copy to ensure its validity before publishing an article. We even watch an anxious news team race against the clock to get their story fact-checked and submitted before a White House news conference, and the moment delivers the dramatic intensity of an episode of 24.
The Fourth Estate showcases journalistic ideals and standards.
Journalism means nothing without its rigorous standards. It’s journalistic integrity that separates news from gossip, hearsay, and propaganda. Journalism is factual, unbiased, and presented without agendas. But right now there’s a war waging over what qualifies as a fact; Garbus and Carchman’s fascinating documentary profiles the men and women on the front lines, and speaks to the necessity of journalism in a democratic society. The Fourth Estate showcases journalistic ideals and standards and dares you to point a finger and call out fake news.
The Hot Docs Film Festival takes place from Thursday, April 26 to May 6. Visit the official website for more info.