I’ve just finished watching the 4 -part documentary series on the New York Times. It should be mandatory viewing for any aspiring journalist and recommended viewing for citizens wanting to become more media literate. Whatever you think that you knew about how print reporters now operate in a world of 24-hour breaking news and social media demands, you’ll see for yourself- thanks to the incredible access provided by the New York Times- how relentless the pressures are on reporters and editors.
When NYT reporters aren’t tag-teaming stories and scrambling to meet digital deadlines that often are 15 minutes later than their last file and post, they’re tweeting, promoting their stories on CNN or MSNBC’s Morning Joe, and sitting down to record the excellent NYT podcast The Daily. They operate the way you’d expect a reporter or editor working for CNN International or the BBC News Channel to function. (Although if working for CNN U.S. they’d be spending far more of their time expressing opinions on the latest BREAKING NEWS cycle.)
Liz Garbus’s compelling series is, of course, focused on the reporting on Donald Trump’s presidency. We don’t get any insights about how the NYT is covering international stories or other breaking non- Washington stories with the exception of the NYT’s Pulitzer Prize winning reporting on the “Me Too” movement. But for the purposes of this documentary series no matter. We’re here to watch how the talented and driven NYT reporters led by Maggie Haberman, Michael Schmidt, and Mark Mazzetti- to name a few who appear frequently – are nailing story after story, working their sources, and yielding to editor’s sharp questions and tough judgments about whether they’re good to go in terms of publishing. Their productivity is astonishing. They’re clearly all struggling to salvage some parts of their personal lives. They’re paying a price for their dedication but they all know they’re riding the most astonishing news wave any of us have witnessed. They’re flat out but they’re running high on adrenaline .
The documentary cleverly displays Trump’s incessant tweets against the “failing” NYT along with the rapid fire tweets posted by Washington reporters. It’s unclear whether they’re under NY pressure to do so or whether they’re driven to take control of their own stories and push them out on social media. At times the tweeting seems out of control and it eventually results in the one-time Washington star reporter Glenn Thrush being reprimanded and placed under more editorial control after one of his tweets proves both inaccurate and damaging to the Times’s credibility, playing into the hands of the ferocious Trump media supporters at Fox. ( Maggie Haberman last week wrote about her decision to cut back drastically on tweeting and why she now feels it is harmful to thoughtful journalism.)
What has struck so many of my female friends and colleagues who are journalists or work in media when watching the series is the overwhelmingly white male, Ivy league-graduated make up of the newsrooms in New York and Washington. They’re appalled and question the NYT’s commitment to diversity. Yet perception may not be the reality as the NYT’s own figures document: women in 2017 constituted 46% of the work force in editorial and opinion- up from 38% in 2015; persons of colour jumped from 21% in 2015 to 26% in 2017. The executive editor of the NYT, Dean Baquet is an African American.
What interested me as someone who spent a large part of his daily journalism life working for CBC TV News in Canada decades ago are the daily battles between New York and Washington. In my day it was the spirited- and at times- vicious sniping by Ottawa ( home of the Parliamentary Bureau) at the editorial second guessing and controlling decisions about where the political story belonged in the running order of the flagship newscast The National. Ottawa and its brilliant and manipulative bureau chief, supported more often than not by the Toronto-based anchorman, himself an outstanding political journalist and ex-Parliamentary reporter, fought to ” lead” the nightly news with all developments related to Ottawa political stories big and small.
As the one-time executive producer of The National and then later head of news, I had to balance Ottawa’s aggressive tactics with the often equally well-articulated views of passionate senior desk editors in Toronto who were championing international stories or original reporting from Canada’s regions. They resented being steamrolled by Ottawa.
In episode 1 of the 4th Estate, Washington’s tenacious bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller is so appalled by New York’s rewriting of the lead to the reporting on Trump’s “State of the Union” speech that she refuses to take a call from a senior editor. There are other moments recorded by Garbus’s cameras that capture Washington correspondents’ indignation at how New York is treating their reporting. But these are observational documentaries, not narrative-driven films and what makes the New York Times the greatest English-language newspaper in the world and a model of fact-checking and editorial second-guessing is the steadfast presence of senior, skilful editors. It’s a reminder that in a world of irresponsible social media and websites that far too often post and display unchecked and factually dodgy stories, the New York Times and its impressive executive editor Dean Baquet cling to their high-minded editorial standards. At the same time, Baquet has to try and calm an increasingly anxious newsroom as the digital demands on the paper are forcing him to reduce the number of sub- editors and copy checkers and to hire on multi-skilled reporters and media workers who can keep the paper constantly updated and humming across platforms.
And Baquet is always aware of the enormous pressures to get the story right given the Trump assaults and tweets about the ” failing New York Times” and the ” enemies of the press.” He’s also up against the virtual propaganda machine Fox News runs to discredit all criticism about Trump. At one point Baquet says to the effect ” Imagine what Watergate coverage would have been like if “Fox and Friends” had existed, and Nixon could have used it to beat us up.” He wrestles with how to handle Trump’s pathological lying and worries that the NYT can’t accuse him of lying all the time as it loses all meaning for the reader.
What stays with me – and will I think also affect non-journalist watchers- is the resolve and stamina of individual reporters to find and report stories that matter. I’m thinking about how Michael Schmidt, the dogged investigative reporter, cheerfully ( at least while the cameras are around) accepts his fate to be assigned to covering Trump over the holidays at his fortress estate Mar-a-Lago. It has all the makings of several weeks of frustration and virtually no access to the president. But Schmidt through one of Trump’s chosen media buddies gets inside and an informal introduction to Trump who’s lounging around and obviously bored. Trump may not know Schmidt but for all his professed hatred of the New York Times, he’s a lifelong reader and always eager to try and to orchestrate his own version of events in the newspaper that matters more than any other news outlet. Schmidt has his exclusive. So it goes at the New York Times. Brilliant.
If you’re watching in the UK, the series is on the BBC Iplayer but you better hurry if you’ve not seen the first episode. It disappears after tonight.