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.”