• Maggie Haberman, White House Correspondent, gets a phone call from US President Donald Trump. (Aletheia Films LLC)
The best documentary of the Trump era so far, 'The Fourth Estate' takes you inside 'The New York Times' as it covers an antagonistic White House.
By
Simon Vandore

1 Jun 2018 - 3:09 PM  UPDATED 21 Jun 2018 - 10:43 AM

"Off the record... Maggie, this is off the record... [BLEEP]." – US President Donald Trump overheard on the phone to New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman.

In the court of public opinion, journalists share a gutter with used car salespeople, politicians and lawyers. From reporters to editors to writers of TV guide articles, we’re not popular.

As I watch brilliant colleagues work in the SBS newsroom downstairs and the online interactive team a few desks away, I want to protest on their behalf. They're real people doing honest, important work, bringing truth to light. They deserve a more sympathetic portrayal, Law & Order-style: “These are their stories.”

WATCH: The Fourth Estate airs Thursday nights at 9pm on SBS VICELAND

Something like The Fourth Estate, beginning 10 June on SBS, which puts you inside The New York Times during US President Donald Trump’s first year. Including an extended doozy of a first episode, its four instalments show these real people plunged into the non-stop Trump news cycle, which doesn't let up (and still hasn't).

We’ve all watched and read of recent drama at the White House. Imagine experiencing it live, for a living: “Did he really just say that?”, “Can Trump get away with doing this?” or just “What!?”

'Times' team

The woman crouched in a corridor, talking to her 12-year-old son on FaceTime, is White House Correspondent Maggie Haberman, in the middle of an interview with in-house podcast The Daily.

Soon, President Donald Trump himself calls her. We can overhear him ranting, until he says, "Off the record, Maggie..." and the rest is bleeped. This is Haberman's life now.

"I'm so tired,” she says. “But also, like, I don't really know how to stop at this point, either.”

Haberman is later seen striding to work, assuaging her son’s anxiety once more: "It is your mama. You're totally fine. You can't die in your nightmares. You can't die in your nightmares, I promise."

If only she could be as reassuring for the rest of us.

How did Maggie Haberman find herself juggling parental video duties with calls from the president? "I asked if I could be the Trump reporter," she says – meaning before he was the Republican candidate. The president still feeds her information, but simultaneously attacks her on Twitter.

Meanwhile, the ruffled Gen Xer having coffee with a colleague in his kitchen before work is Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Matt Apuzzo. 

"Everything's extraordinary,” he says of reporting on Trump. “I don't write about anything that's not extraordinary."

And the serious, bald man with fresh memories of the war in Afghanistan is Matthew Rosenberg, now an investigative reporter on intelligence and national security with the Times.

"The pace at which these things are happening… It's nuts, you know,” marvels Rosenberg. "We're not even 100 days into this thing yet."

But soon enough, we are. Then we’re at the firing of FBI Director James Comey. The appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Increasing allegations of collusion with Russia. The resignation of Sean Spicer as press secretary, followed by the 10 spectacular days of his short-lived successor, Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci.

The Charlottesville protests and the deadly car attack that followed. Harvey Weinstein’s disgrace and the #MeToo movement. Michael Wolff's tell-all book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, and the controversial exit of a Times reporter himself. Each episode has these epic moments. It's hard to believe it all happened in just one year.

"It's an uneasy time"

Meanwhile, print media is dying. Founded in 1851, the year of Australia's first gold rush, The Failing New York Times (as Trump calls it) has gained many new readers under this presidency, but the advertising dollars once known as "rivers of gold" haven't returned.

Early in the series, Executive Editor Dean Baquet must lose seven floors of office space. He decides to axe sub editors, whose job is quality control (this hurts – I started as a sub), to hire more digital journalists (well, OK – that's what I am now). 

The first black man to run the Times, Baquet seems to have taken Trump's unexpected victory as a cue for change: "We tried to cover Donald Trump using the rules of the past. We didn't have our finger on the pulse of the country. And it was wrong."

Back in the newsroom, the work resumes with fewer colleagues. Readers sometimes think reporters at the same outlet compete with each other for a story, but as you will see here, nothing could be further from the truth. A few tensions aside, the Times journalists work as a team, sidling up to each other’s desks, contributing an extra angle to one another's stories in dogged pursuit of the truth.

You will feel like you are among these people. You may even enjoy it. These are professionals at the top of their game, but it's a gritty life of plain office desks, coffee cups, phone calls and sitting at a keyboard. That's what newsrooms are really like.

"We're in each other's lives constantly," one journalist says. "No one's expecting anything to slow down anytime soon."

This is the story of The New York Times settling into the Trump era, set to an alarming, industrial-flavoured soundtrack from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It documents what just happened to America. And it’s amazing. 

"I think this is a unique moment in American history. Forget that I'm Washington Bureau Chief, I'm transfixed as an American citizen about what happens next." – New York Times Washington Bureau Chief Elisabeth Bumiller.

 

The Fourth Estate airs Thursday nights at 9pm on SBS VICELAND. Watch the first episode now at SBS On Demand.

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