Freedom of Expression, Liz Garbus, & The Fourth Estate

Thursday night, my wife and I visited the Castro for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival‘s Freedom of Expression Award, which goes to a Jewish filmmaker who has worked to preserve our freedoms. This year, the award goes to documentarian Liz Garbus, the maker of Girlhood, Bobby Fischer Against the World, and What Happened, Miss Simone? The event was centered on her latest work, The Fourth Estate (also named Reporting Trump’s First Year: The Fourth Estate).

How does a major newspaper work in times of rising readership, falling income, and a President hell-bent on destroying the free press? Garbus’s fly-on-the-wall verite documentary gives you a very good idea. Her camera follows reporters and editors as the New York Times deals with the first few months of the Trump administration.

We get to know the people who do the research and writing, while being thrown out of press conferences because the president has designated them “fake news.” We see a young reporter covering a conservative conference, where Trump calls out the press as the enemy of the people. We see them trying to gain access, interview anonymous sources (no, we don’t know who they are), and find time to spend with their children.

The Fourth Estate shows the hard, seemingly unending work of journalism, and the difficulties of letting America know what’s really going on. I give it an A.

The Fourth Estate is not a theatrical feature. It’s episode 1 of a 4-part Showtime series. If you don’t have Showtime, you get one more chance to see this first episode (subtitled The First 100 Days) on the big screen, at the Albany Twin, Wednesday August 1, 4:00.

After Thursday night’s screening, Garbus came onstage for a Q&A with filmmaker Bonni Cohen (An Inconvenient Sequel) and the audience. Some highlights, edited for clarity and brevity:

  • On making an empathetic connection with your subjects: You find that a person is not defined by their worst action. In many ways they’re like everybody else.
  • One film leads to another. The Farm brought me to Girlhood.
  • On deciding to film the New York Times: I was in post-election shock. I wondered what platform I could use to deal with this change. I wanted to be a fly on the wall at the Times.
  • All newspapers are facing an existential threat.
  • On the conservative convention sequence: That was the first time Trump said we’re the enemy of the people. Now we’re used to that, and that’s shocking.
  • The Times’ reporting is based on sources. Those sources risk their jobs and risk going to prison. We can’t give out their names.
  • It’s important to a Times reporter that he gets his article up 15 seconds before the Washington Post.
  • On reporters playing to the camera: Over time, they forget a little bit that you’re there. Also, we spend enough time with them when the cameras are off to know that they don’t change much when they’re on.
  • Of course, reporters get things wrong. With the pace and the speed and the pressure, it’s amazing that they get most things right.