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Shades of the Gray Lady: The Selective, Flawed Portrait of The New York Times

A new documentary miniseries goes inside the Times—just not all the way inside. And what it’s missing is the real tension of America’s foremost newspaper.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Occasionally, a disgruntled news consumer will read a publication’s tweets or headlines about the Trump administration, and, angrily, the reader will resolve to “fix” the language with an eye toward harsher moral clarity. The New York Times correspondent Maggie Haberman, who covers the White House, will tweet about Trump’s “demonstrable falsehoods,” and the actor John Cusack will chime in to insist that she scrap such a hackneyed term, “falsehoods,” to describe Trump’s cruel and bewildering statements for what they often are—“lies.”

The Fourth Estate—a four-part documentary series airing on Showtime—seeks to assuage, or at the very least inform, the popular angst that dogs The New York Times as the newspaper covers Trump’s presidency. The documentary follows several journalists, working in New York and Washington, D.C., who report to the politics desk. Most prominently, the series features the politics correspondents Haberman, Peter Baker, Matt Apuzzo, Jeremy Peters, and Glenn Thrush; the investigative reporters Michael Schmidt and Adam Goldman; the media columnist Jim Rutenberg; the Daily podcast host Michael Barbaro; the Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller; and the newspaper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet. Together, these journalists report out stories about the Trump administration’s machinations, with the documentary focusing mostly on palace intrigue and staff investigations. Alas, the documentary doesn’t explain the newspaper’s obsession with postelection field reports about languishing Trump supporters, though the final episode does briefly follow the national reporter Yamiche Alcindor as she speaks with a few conflicted conservative voters.

The documentary, which is directed by the Academy Award–nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus, begins with footage of Baquet and several other employees huddled around a newsroom desk in New York, watching Trump’s inauguration address with excited disbelief. From there, the newsroom scrambles to cover the key developments in Trump’s first year — the Comey firing, the Mueller investigation, the Charlottesville protests, and the Alabama special Senate election. Through each crisis, a couple dozen bustling journalists must break news and cover the latest developments with comprehensive, conclusive precision—“especially,” as Apuzzo notes in the course of reporting a story about Mike Flynn, “if we’re going to call the White House liars.”

The Fourth Estate is a restless workplace drama. The journalists it features do not spare time to sit and patiently address the camera; the production crews must follow them from one big story to the next. At their desks, on their phones, and through every waking moment of their lives, these journalists haggle over story structure and precise wording: These are the moments when “lie” transforms into more gracious phrasing as libel laws and context supposedly demand it. At one point, Apuzzo notes his team’s recent fondness for “extraordinary,” a term that dulls with each new Trump administration scandal. So the writers rephrase. On screen, these journalists take great care to refine the meaning and potential impact of their stories to come just short of imperiling their sources. Meanwhile, the president and his flacks speak fast and loose about facts, and they speak most bitterly about The New York Times. “They have no sources. They just make ’em up. It’s fake, phony,” Trump tells an auditorium full of his supporters at last year’s CPAC. “I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news. They are the enemy of the people.”

By the time of Trump’s inauguration—when the documentary begins—Baquet and the rest of the team have grown accustomed to this ugly and uncooperative dynamic. Haberman has spent the longest time covering Trump, and she speaks the most scathingly about him, even as she’s come to develop a reputation for accommodating Trump and obscuring as much as she reveals about his dysfunctional White House. “Trump comes at politics the way a second-tier real estate person from the 1980s in New York would,” Haberman says. “Laws and rules are obstacles to be moved. That is Trump’s view of the presidency—what he thought it was gonna be.”

Trump’s explicit contempt for the rule of law strikes fear in his administration’s critics, who turn to The New York Times for scrutiny and—ideally—accountability, for example Apuzzo, Goldman, and Jo Becker’s crucial July 2016 break in the story of the Trump campaign’s coordination with Russian political operatives. “The Times has this new cachet, which is kinda nice,” Rutenberg says. “The downside is that everyone is like, ‘I hope you guys are up for this,’ and it’s like, ‘Fuck you!’” Rutenberg laughs, and he’s clearly joking, but his arrogance in this moment underscores the degree to which the Times can seem invulnerable to reader feedback and political critique. In its four-hour run time, The Fourth Estate avoids the newspaper’s opinion desk, which has become a source of great popular frustration—a frustration that sometimes overwhelms regard for the newspaper’s reporting, even as the newspaper’s loudest critics all anxiously read, share, and depend on a great deal of it.

On the news side, journalists such as Haberman and Apuzzo are generally shown to humor and accommodate their sources only so far as doing so might enhance their reporting; aside from that there’s no sense of camaraderie between the reporters and their subjects, despite popular skepticism that suspects otherwise. The closest any reporter comes to the more unflattering characterizations of “access journalism,” as it were, is Peters, who greets Steve Bannon with a friendly face, and bearing a gift—a bottle of kombucha—as the two sit for an interview in Bannon’s home after his firing from the White House. “It’s not my job to engage him in some kind of debate,” Peters says. “I’m not the host of CNN Crossfire. I’m just trying to draw him out on what he believes.” Bannon seems to like Peters; he trusts him, so he talks.

The Fourth Estate is an effective and sympathetic portrait of the Times as an ensemble effort to illuminate the darkest presidency in a century. Still, the documentary can seem as if it’s missing, or avoiding, the most obvious and popular criticisms of the newspaper’s editorial strategies in the Trump era. There’s no great reckoning with the columnists and their editor James Bennett; they’re unseen and, as far as this documentary reveals, may well not exist. The Fourth Estate is simply reporting the news. Mercifully, the documentary spares viewers the defensiveness that the newspaper’s reporters sometimes deploy in other forums to explain, and justify, the newspaper’s methods; but then, The Fourth Estate limits itself to presenting the Times as a scoops assembly line despite its broader, complicated role in contemporary political discourse.

The documentary thesis is sensible enough: The New York Times produces indispensable reporting, and the journalists who churn these stories at an excruciating rate are heroes, of a sort, against the bewildering political figures who popularized the epithet “fake news.” But The Fourth Estate is a cropped, selective account of the Times role in this political moment. The politics desk and the opinion desk may be functionally unrelated in Baquet’s mind, but it’s all a unified masthead to the newspaper’s restless critics, including the sad-sack conservatives, including the hot-head leftists, including the quarrelsome Mueller fanboys who ruin Haberman’s Twitter mentions these days.