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Showtime's 'The Fourth Estate' Shows News and Subjects in a Volatile Age
May 27, 2018  | By David Hinckley

One of the many contradictions of unaffiliated journalism is that a troubling message can be good news for the messenger.

Showtime’s new documentary series The Fourth Estate, which premieres at 7:30 p.m, ET Sunday and focuses on the coverage of President Donald Trump by the New York Times, makes that point explicitly and implicitly.

Times Editor Dean Baquet allows matter of factly that a Trump presidency seems to ensure a steady flow of attention-getting news.

At the same time, there is an overwhelming sense among Times editors and reporters that the news itself ricochets between bizarre and troubling.

We see Times reporters repeatedly finding information on contacts between Trump campaign officials, say, and Russians. They find this potentially dangerous for America. 

They write about it and some notice is taken. But at least in the early episodes, which cover the 2017 period that began with Trump’s inauguration, none of it moves the needle with Trump supporters.

When Times reporter Jeremy Peters covers the conservative CPAC convention, he finds that even before Trump declares the “lying” media to be “the enemy,” attendees took this as truth. 

Peters notes that this is a classic strategy. Trump, he says, “galvanizes his supporters by giving them someone to be angry at.”

At the same time, Peters also warns that a Times reporter should not approach CPAC attendees as some exotic extraterrestrial species.

That’s a divide of its own, explored here mostly in passing.

Conceived and directed by veteran documentary maker Liz Garbus, The Fourth Estate leaves little doubt that many Times reporters shake their heads at Trump – his self-promotion, his seeming disregard for the way the presidency has traditionally been run.

Accordingly, it focuses on political coverage and investigative reporting, all revolving around Trump. (Maggie Haberman, rifht.)

His ability to make news, in this documentary as in real life, often forces journalists to decide which light to follow. This has become a more serious issue of late because, Baquet notes, fewer institutions are even attempting serious “independent” news coverage. The Times and the Washington Post, get more attention precisely because they’re exceptions.

That also makes their work more valuable, and reminds viewers how hundreds of newspapers that used to do some degree of parallel coverage on state and local levels have stopped doing it at all.

However many Trump supporters are convinced the Times is their enemy, an informed citizenry should ideally not be getting all its information from outlets where information first passes through an ideological prism.

The Fourth Estate also can’t avoid touching on some of the reasons journalism faces this kind of trouble: because readers can get some version of the news faster, easier and often cheaper on the Internet or TV. 

Some of the most telling passages in The Fourth Estate explain how the Times has no immunity card. Despite having more readers than ever, the Times joins every other “traditional” media outlet in figuring out how to convert Internet clicks into life-sustaining revenue.

Baquet and others insists the Times is not “click-driven,” that is, does not measure a story’s value by the number of readers who click on a headline.

At the same time, the paper aggressively courts digital advertisers, and at several points in The Fourth Estate it’s clear that everyone in the building is acutely aware of clicks, retweets, likes and all the other measures of cyber-popularity.

Amidst all this, meanwhile, the dynamics of the newsroom are as traditional as linotype machines. Good reporters still build almost every story one fact at a time. And one story at a time, they contribute to a better understanding of the people who make the rules for both the wise men and the fools.

That’s why the Founding Fathers put freedom of speech and the press at the top of their bill of rights. That’s why it’s so important that journalists keep banging their heads against brick walls – because eventually they will find the faulty brick and help convince even distrustful and reluctant readers that no wall is ever perfect.

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