The Humans of The New York Times

The documentary series The Fourth Estate tries to humanize the journalists who report the news. It can’t help but fall into a trap.

A gathered crowd reacts to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in the lobby of the New York Times building after a meeting in New York on November 22, 2016 (Lucas Jackson / Reuters)

In 2004, in its inaugural State of the News Media report, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the collective now known as the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project, put its finger on one of the paradoxes of contemporary American journalism: “Journalists believe they are working in the public interest and are trying to be fair and independent in that cause,” the report noted. “This is their sense of professionalism.” Later, it shared the flip side of journalistic self-regard: “The public thinks these journalists are either lying or deluding themselves. Americans think journalists are sloppier, less professional, less moral, less caring, more biased, less honest about their mistakes, and generally more harmful to democracy than they did in the 1980s.”

And then the report really let the axe fall. “After watching these numbers closely for years,” it concluded, “we at the Project suggest that all of these matters—the questions about journalists’ morality, caring about people, professionalism, accuracy, honesty about errors—distill into something larger. The problem is a disconnection between the public and the news media over motive.”

A disconnection between the public and the news media over motive. With that, pretty much a decade in advance, Pew articulated one of the many tensions that would come to define this defining cultural moment: a news system—a political system—in a state of simmering emergency. Jarring collisions of information and personality. Missed connections; misunderstandings; “fake news.” The weaponization of “bad faith.” The crisis of authorship itself.

Late last month, The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman sparked a debate when she referred to two of the president’s growing collection of publicly uttered untruths (3,000+ of them, per one recent count) as “demonstrable falsehoods” rather than outright lies. The paper’s logic, as her Times colleague Michael Shear later explained, was that a mere observer of Donald Trump—even an extremely knowledgeable observer like Haberman, who has covered Trump as a reporter for two decades—cannot claim to understand the intention behind the falsehood. Perhaps he willfully misled; perhaps he was merely confused. You can’t know for sure; therefore you can’t say for sure. Good journalism demands precise language, and lie, in this context, is notably imprecise.

The whole thing was a tempest-in-a-tweetstorm that was also, as such squalls will sometimes be, revealing. Here was yet another debate that distilled down to that most enduringly human of impediments: the fundamental unknowability of the minds and hearts of other people. The fact that we are and will always be, first and foremost, objects to each other—despite language, despite Twitter, despite Facebook’s cheerful marketing of “connection,” despite love. Here, via the lie-or-falsehood arguments, were questions that emerge from that fact—questions that have long been matters of cliché in the world of literature—seeping, with venomous urgency, into the realm of the real. The intentional fallacy, the author-function, the death of the author, the winking but desperate anxieties of postmodernism: That’s where we are now, in our discourse. We doubt each other by reflex. We doubt each other, in some ways, by design.

And part of the doubting settles, specifically, on questions of authorship—of news not just as a democratic necessity, but also as a product of people, weary and errant. The intentional fallacy, insisted upon. The messenger, blamed. “Fake news,” a descriptor not of information, but of human beings. “Bad faith,” a matter of muscle memory on the national tongue. A disconnection between the public and the news media over motive.

Into this situation comes The Fourth Estate, the latest documentary that claims to take viewers inside the workings—the authors, the reporters, the motives—of The New York Times. The Liz Garbus film, which screened at Tribeca and is currently being presented as a four-part series on Showtime, is in one way an explicit attempt to appreciate the Times in particular—and by extension the news media in general—as the very thing its haters accuse it of being: a product created by people.

In place of the soaring rhetoric traditionally associated with the Times—the Gray Lady, “All the news that’s fit to print,” “without fear or favor,” etc.—there is a notable smallness to the film’s proceedings. And in place of the soft pseudo-fictionalizations of All the President’s Men, The Newsroom, The Post, and the like, there are the relatively grimy details of documentary. There are conference calls in which reporters try to parse the language of the newly installed President Trump. There are fluorescent lights and coffee cups and salads that, as the news breaks once more, wilt, uneaten, in plastic bowls. Reporters, filmed in their homes, do dishes and make breakfasts and kiss their partners goodbye. They bike to work. One of the most striking scenes of The Fourth Estate involves Haberman, interrupting her work to talk on the phone to one of her three kids. “I love you soooooo much,” she says at one point. At another, the mother reassures her son: “You can’t die in your nightmares,” she promises. “You can’t die in your nightmares.”

Which is also to say that The Fourth Estate is, in its own way, an argument about authorship. It studiously humanizes the reporters of the Times—here are the bylines that inform in black and white and the heads that talk on CNN, hunched, often with relatable schlubbery, over cubicle desks—in the service of telling the story of the Times. The series can sometimes read, in that, less as its own work of journalism than as sponsored content for the practice of journalism itself. The villain of the series, ostensibly, is Donald Trump, the self-proclaimed swamp-drainer and norm-buster and truth-teller. (His inauguration, overlaid with rumbling storm clouds and the tense sawings of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s ominous and strings-heavy score, makes for the first, tone-setting scene of the series.) But the film’s true antagonist, it soon becomes clear, is not the one person so much as the many. It is the pervasion and the perversion of “fake news” itself. It’s the notion, embraced by a wide swath of the American public, that the news that nourishes democracy is a systemic lie, willingly perpetrated by systemic liars.

In response to this, The Fourth Estate, scene after scene, becomes its own kind of paradox: It attempts to combat the flawed logic of the intentional fallacy … by way of committing the intentional fallacy. It is highlighting the rumpled humanity at the heart of the institution that is vying for continued authority in the minds and hearts of Americans. It is, in that effort, insisting on two things at once: that journalists aren’t so bad, and also that the work they do is demonstrably great. Call these reporters “fake news” if you want, the film whispers, but you will be wrong. Because, see for yourself, as you go behind the scenes within the glass-walled offices and Amtrak trains and Maggie Haberman’s Kia: There’s no lying here. There are mistakes, sometimes, yes, but no lies. Isn’t it clear, instead, how deeply these people, just like you, care about the truth?

The Fourth Estate manages to maintain, throughout its four long episodes, a tone of simmering urgency, and that feat is appropriate: The questions the film is asking, as its reporters investigate, among other things, the Trump campaign’s potential collusion with Russia and the dissolution of norms and, in one case, one of their own—Glenn Thrush’s demotion after several former colleagues accused him of sexual harassment becomes a subplot in one of the episodes—extend far beyond the series itself. This is a show about systems. It’s a show about the people who make those systems what they are. It’s a show about what happens when it becomes unavoidably clear that the institutions that were once easily romanticized—among them The New York Times, the White House, America—are in fact built upon the softest of foundations: humans, messy and complicated and structurally unsound.

It’s also a show about the changes journalism must contend with as the world evolves around it. Reporting, as it is typically practiced today, is rooted in the progressivism of the late 19th and early 20th century. As the notion of the “public” and the “society”—concepts made possible by the connective capabilities of the railroad and, especially, the telegraph—came to adopt their contemporary meaning in the United States, journalism responded by professionalizing. Newspapers that had once been partisan now attempted to speak to broader audiences by sticking to a just-the-facts approach; journalism adopted the systematic approaches of science for its daily investigations. A hierarchy of editors ensured that history’s rough draft was the result of a team of people rather than the single person with the byline. Journalists began attributing the facts they found to sources, and developing the language—according to, said—that made the attribution legible to readers.

They checked their work, in public. They learned out loud. They worked out methods of correcting the errors that would inevitably occur in the tumult and haste of daily reporting in order to broker trust with readers over time. They turned the news, what the sociologist Gaye Tuchman called its “constructed reality,” into a vast system, one that was premised not merely on the dispassionate—information, objectivity, honest inquiry—but also on the epistemic capabilities of the institution itself. The way individual people could work together to be more than the sum of their parts. In that context, by that process, the person conducting the investigation didn’t fully matter; it was the system that mattered. It was the system that was to be trusted.

One of the minor characters of The Fourth Estate is Michael Barbaro, the host of the Times’ now-blockbuster podcast, The Daily; he asks the reporters—some of them apparently on deadline—to do for that show the same things they are doing for the documentary: performing as themselves. Barbaro talks with Emily Steel, who, with Michael Schmidt, another star of The Fourth Estate, won a Pulitzer this year for her reporting on the Bill O’Reilly sexual-harassment scandal at Fox News, asking her to elaborate on her reporting—to contextualize it for listeners. And to do that analysis in, quite literally, her own voice. Barbaro makes similar requests of many other reporters over the course of the documentary. As, in another way, does another key player in The Fourth Estate: Twitter. Not only are the show’s reporters constantly reacting to presidential tweets—the chirp of the Twitter bird serves as occasional interruption of the film’s action and score—but they are also, themselves, constantly tweeting. Sometimes the reporters are admonished by their editors for being too voicey, too intemperate, too much themselves. They are attacked by their detractors as biased, as agenda-ed, as having been fake news all along.

The individual versus the collective, the author as a person versus the author as a process, the benefits of the humanized reporter and the drawbacks: These are tensions not just in journalism, but in American culture at large. They are part of a wider Soylent Greening taking place across American institutions: They are people, we are reminded every day. Just people. The tensions are there when Roseanne, the person, brings down a massively popular TV show—a complicated system of writers and producers and actors and viewers—with her bigotry. They’re there in the cancellation of House of Cards and Transparent, in the culinary fate of The Spotted Pig, and in the second-chance-ing of Charlie Rose. They’re there when we as a culture grapple with the fact that so many of the structures of our news and entertainment have been built upon the entitlements of abusers. They’re there, as well, when Kim Kardashian, summoning the power of her celebrity, goes to the White House to advocate for the fate of a single incarcerated woman. They’re there when the president she successfully entreats on the matter refers to the subject of their meeting as “prison reform.”

And they’re there, as well, when Maggie Haberman tweets a note about the president’s latest “demonstrable falsehoods” and is promptly attacked for the report. She is wrong once again, so many people tell her, furious, many of them also taking the opportunity to mention Hillary Clinton’s emails; she cannot be trusted. Nor, therefore, can the institution she represents. The romance has gone, if indeed it was ever really there. The Post, Steven Spielberg’s 2017 love letter to journalism, was perfectly serviceable Oscar bait that seemed to distill a dead dream. The West Wing now reads, in the harshness of retrospect, as a gauzy piece of fan fiction. We have lost patience with ideals. We are too savvy about how the world works now—about who has power within it, and who does not. We are filled with righteous outrage. And there is Maggie Haberman, on the other end of the Tweet button, immediate in a way that our real problems—the slow-moving tragedies, the injustices that are so widespread as to be, in an urgent sense, incomprehensible—cannot be. One thing the intentional fallacy has going for it is ease of use: It’s so much more convenient to be angry at a person than it is to be angry at a system. It’s so much simpler to debate the language of a lie than it is to consider what happens when lies, so plentiful and diffuse, become part of the atmosphere.

The Fourth Estate is a sequel, of sorts, to Page One, the 2011 documentary about, yep, the work and the fortunes of The New York Times. The villain of the earlier film is in its own way shapeless, not a person so much as a creeping catastrophe: the collapse of the business model that had sustained the Times and other American newspapers—and, with them, the American news system writ large—for so long. Money, and its absence, remains a haunting specter in The Fourth Estate. But it is no longer presented as the biggest threat to the Times. While the earlier hazard came from people who wouldn’t pay for news, the danger now—to the Times, to journalism, to democracy—comes from people who simply won’t believe it. The looming threat comes from people who, every day, commit the intentional fallacy.

During the course of the documentary, the investigative reporter Eric Lipton goes to Montana to report on the impact of the Trump administration’s environmental deregulation policies. Lipton introduces himself to potential sources as a reporter for the publication that, despite it all, remains the nation’s paper of record. “The New York Times!” one man replies, cheerfully. “Here’s the deal,” says another, less cheerfully. “We hate you guys.”