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The Fourth Estate Takes on #MeToo and the New York Times

Photo: Courtesy of SHOWTIME

The Showtime documentary The Fourth Estate does an uncannily great job of replicating the experience of being inside the New York Times during the first year of the Trump administration. Over four episodes, the last of which aired Sunday, it follows several familiar figures from the paper’s Washington bureau, particularly those focused on chasing down connections between Trump and Russia. Through a toolbox of familiar but remarkably effective documentary devices, The Fourth Estate is fantastic at giving its audience the same sense of adrenaline that pumps through the Times newsrooms, the sense of anxiety and breathlessness, of standing in what used to be a steady river of news and feeling like the river has turned into an unending tsunami. It’s extremely watchable.

The fourth episode, though, is also a demonstration of the potential flaws of its framing. That’s when the documentary’s yearlong focus on the Trump beat gets dragged into different territory: The #MeToo movement suddenly bursts into visibility with the allegations of improper conduct toward women by Times Washington reporter Glenn Thrush. Despite The Fourth Estate’s painstaking, careful effort to present the lives of these Times figures with an unbiased, invisible eye — an attempt to be a fly on the wall, an observer that presents and does not comment on the furious debates from inside the Times — the documentary nevertheless reproduces an unfortunate narrative about Thrush and his behavior. It re-creates the sense that Thrush’s bad behavior is, indeed, bad, but mostly because it harms the Times and his colleagues.

For its first three episodes, The Fourth Estate focuses almost solely on the reporters and editors who cover Trump’s White House. There’s extensive footage of Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush huddled together, piecing together a “mood inside the White House” report, and there’s even more attention paid to the Times’ Russia investigation team. The default narrative, set by the first hour-long episode and threaded through the entire documentary, is that the most important story of the year is Trump’s potential criminality. And the most important focus is the debate about the best way to cover it all.

None of that is wrong! The most powerful moments of The Fourth Estate are those that point directly at how much of the Times’ coverage is a debate, and how much of its framing is defined by people making choices, and not by some unassailable Platonic truth about The News. There’s an especially effective moment in the first episode, when Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller edits the coverage of Trump’s first presidential address to Congress. She decides that the story’s lede should be Trump’s comments on immigration policy. She then learns that her bosses have decided the lede shouldn’t focus on his immigration comments, but rather his universally palatable calls for “an end to trivial fights.” Bumiller is insistent: The lede should be about immigration policy, and she has someone else in the Washington office take a call from the New York office while she rewrites the opening paragraphs. (“Fuck them,” she mutters, as she watches the words on her screen change. “They can fire me!”) The shot ends with Bumiller’s stubborn demand that the story be framed by Trump’s immigration stance.

Then the scene cuts to an establishing shot of a New York subway car roaring through a station, and a close-up shot of a woman reading the Times the next morning. The headline on the front page reads, “Before Congress, Trump Urges End to ‘Trivial Fights.’”

The hard cut between Bumiller frantically typing out her version of the story, and the resulting image of the front page with its sanctimoniously even-handed headline, is fantastic documentary storytelling. It does so much to demonstrate how much the news is a product of individual voices and personal decisions. But that same attention to the importance of individual reporters — and the general sense that Trump and the Russia investigation are the most valuable stories of the year — instantly positions the documentary to present any non-Trump stories as less important or as distractions. And that flaw is most fraught when The Fourth Estate finally catches up with the Thrush story.

The first three episodes present Thrush as a familiar reporter trope: He is flustered and harried, he is unwilling to bow to institutional pressures that try to soften his rhetoric, he is uninterested in modulating his distinct “voice” so that it will appear less biased, and he has a hard time stopping himself from tweeting out opinionated responses to current events. He is straight out of an Aaron Sorkin story, weird hat affectation and all. The conflicts between the Times effort to appear unbiased and for Thrush to call it like it is are generally presented as sympathetic toward him. Should he tweet less? Sure. But he’s the one who’s pushing for stronger language in the coverage of Trump’s White House, and he and Maggie Haberman are there on the front lines, driving the narrative of the White House as a chaotic and dysfunctional mess. He’s a bad boy, The Fourth Estate suggests, but his work is so important.

Meanwhile, the Times’ groundbreaking coverage of Bill O’Reilly and Harvey Weinstein lurks in the background, and The Fourth Estate points to it as an aside to the Trump coverage. (By the way, there are some huge stories happening about sexual assault and harassment at this newsroom too!) The documentary does not hide how stubbornly it sticks to its larger frame: While it includes talking heads with reporters discussing the Weinstein reporting, it then swiftly shifts to Jim Rutenberg’s reframing of #MeToo as a Trump story. The Fourth Estate is a documentary about the New York Times covering Trump; it is seemingly loath to consider different topics.

The problem is when the time comes to announce that Glenn Thrush is also the subject of an investigation — when, as Bumiller and others explain, the #MeToo moment comes home to the Times newsroom — The Fourth Estate cannot help but create the impression that Thrush’s behavior is mostly a problem for the reputation of the paper, rather than his behavior being a problem because it damaged women’s careers. There’s an interview with executive editor Dean Baquet, talking about how they’re suspending Thrush because his behavior has clearly damaged the Times as a brand. He has to take into account how the women feel too, he says, but how Thrush may have harmed women is unmistakably a “too.” It is one small part of the discussion, not the lede. We see interviews with Thrush’s colleagues, admitting they feel betrayed and hurt. Baquet has a conference call with several of Thrush’s bosses and co-workers, asking whether they think his decision not to fire him was the right call. It is unsurprising when they all agree with their boss.

And then, because it is a documentary about the Times and Trump and not about #MeToo, Thrush disappears. The celebratory closing gestures are about the Times winning Pulitzers, and about the continuing story of Trump and Don Jr.’s lies. Thrush, who played such a large role in the first three-and-a-half episodes, is just wiped away.

I don’t know how The Fourth Estate could’ve escaped this conundrum. It’s a series about the Times and Trump, and it’s understandable that Thrush’s behavior would feel like a noteworthy but ultimately subordinate part of the story. His disappearance in the documentary probably reflects the way it actually felt in the newsroom: He was there, in the middle of it, and then he was gone, suspended and sidelined to another beat. But purposely or not, The Fourth Estate still reproduces the narrative that Thrush’s behavior is mostly a problem because it interrupted the coverage of Donald Trump. It simply hurt the Times. It’s not presented as a problem because Thrush reportedly got drunk and tried to kiss women without their consent, and then damaged their careers by gossiping about them afterwards. It simply hurt the Times.

Even after its final episode, The Fourth Estate stands as a terrific look inside the Times, and as a fantastic piece of documentary storytelling. But that’s what also makes its treatment of Thrush so frustrating: It is so firmly trapped inside the viewpoint of an institution, it reproduces the institution’s views.

The Fourth Estate Takes on #MeToo and the New York Times