Review: ‘The Fourth Estate’ Is a Competent but Incomplete Peek Inside The Times

Posted May 24, 2018 7:22 p.m. EDT

“The Fourth Estate,” which chronicles 16 months in the life of The New York Times, is reasonably competent, but it’s also superficial and oblivious a little more often than one might like. That said, as is the case with the Gray Lady, it’s a good thing that “The Fourth Estate” exists at all. When both the film and the publication are on their A-game, they’re quite good — and occasionally gripping.

The documentary, which debuts Sunday on Showtime, also has a lot in common with bloated Netflix dramas, padded and too easily distracted, especially in the first two of its four installments. (The premiere runs 87 minutes, and other segments are about an hour.) It has an irritating habit of darting toward an interesting story and then pivoting away again too quickly. Much of the documentary, which opens on the day Donald Trump was inaugurated into office, plods along like a dutiful recap of a show we watched not too long ago.

Director Liz Garbus — a veteran documentary filmmaker who received an Oscar nomination for her 2015 film “What Happened, Miss Simone?” — diligently shows what it’s like to work inside a pressure-filled workplace that has no “off” switch. In doing so, she humanizes names like Maggie Haberman and Michael Schmidt, familiar from Twitter and blockbuster stories. It’s odd, though, that so little conflict is on display; it comes as a jarring shock when a reporter talks about how he and some valued colleagues are “at each other’s throats” now and then.

It’s hard to delve all that deeply into an institution filled with people who appear to be hyperaware of the scrutiny directed at their workplace, wary of the idea of becoming the story themselves. Add in another distancing factor — a defensive mindset that often frames critiques of the publication as exercises undertaken in bad faith — and “The Fourth Estate” at times comes off as a portrait of different kinds of awkwardness.

The final episode, however, fulfills what was most likely part of the mission statement, as least as far as Times’ leadership was concerned: to be more accountable and even transparent to the Times’ partisans and critics.

In an era in which sexual harassment and other abuses of power have become high-profile stories — in large part due to reporting by The Times — “it was not surprising that, you know, The Times would be in somebody’s sights,” Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller says in an interview. She’s referring to a November account in Vox of misconduct by former White House reporter Glenn Thrush, who was suspended for two months after a Times investigation and then reassigned.

I make every allowance for the fact that the situation involving Thrush was excruciating and distracting on many levels. But to characterize the revelations about him as an effort to wound the institution, rather than as a difficult but necessary truth shared in a way that was painful to those participating in that reporting, is unfortunate.

Still, it’s surprising and laudable that Times management allowed the crews managed by Garbus, who directs or co-directs every episode, to follow the Thrush situation so closely. It’s by far the most substantial narrative in the documentary, which also follows the nonstop work lives of the Washington bureau staff, the departure of many White House aides, the publication of groundbreaking Times articles about James Comey and Robert Mueller and various Trump-related rallies, battles and investigations.

At one point, Dean Baquet, executive editor of The Times, tells the Washington bureau, via a conference call, that Thrush would be reassigned, as “punishment.” An unidentified male voice on a speakerphone asks a simple question: Why wasn’t Thrush fired? I won’t spoil what happens next, but I will note that the women on the call didn’t ask that question. Given that Bumiller herself later refers to pockets of discontent surrounding this resolution, one has to wonder, were the women on that call satisfied by that decision — or did they worry that they couldn’t question it without ruffling the feathers of the powers that be?

Presumably there are text chains, Slack groups and email threads about this topic and many others that affect The Times, but Garbus didn’t have access to those channels. That is the biggest flaw of “The Fourth Estate”: It leaves out too much. Garbus gives little screen time to the middle of The Times organization, those editors who help the bosses determine the tone, focus and framing of news coverage. In interviews that are too glancing to be truly illuminating, a few reporters are asked about the paper’s coverage of Hillary Clinton’s email server, and about the Oct. 31, 2017, article that (depending on where you stand) minimized a connection between Russia and President Trump. The answers Garbus gets will no doubt fuel more conversations among the Times-obsessed.

But not talking to higher-ups about gaps, blind spots and stumbles comes off as a missed opportunity. The things that really aggravate the paper’s critics often have to do with emphasis, omissions and the sheer tonnage of certain kinds of coverage. There’s almost no substantive examination of those topics, which may frustrate even fans of The Times, many of whom (present company included) simply want it to be even better than it already is. Like a reporter who came back with only 60 percent of a really good story, “The Fourth Estate” somehow feels like it needed more legwork to truly shine.

Early on, Baquet does note that both the left and the right “don’t want to hear what the other side has to say,” and both sides — a migraine-inducing phrase that actually appears in the documentary’s opening credits — “are looking for places we fail.”

The New York Times is not failing, of course. But “The Fourth Estate” looks a lot like the start of a process — one that involves grappling with the public’s desire to know how its news is gathered and molded, and contending deeply with some of the ways in which traditional models of journalism have let us down. It’s an uneven, occasionally fascinating beginning and it should by no means be the end.

“The Fourth Estate”

Sunday on Showtime