New York Times Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller hung up the phone at her standing desk in the middle of the D.C. newsroom and let out a deep sigh. It was November 2017, 11 months into the relentless news cycle of the Trump presidency, and on top of the usual, deadline-driven pressures facing the paper, Bumiller had just learned that one of her top reporters, White House correspondent Glenn Thrush, was to be accused of sexual harassment in a Vox story.
A camera crew for the Showtime documentary series The Fourth Estate happened to be shooting in the newsroom that day, and captured Bumiller as she and Washington editor Bill Hamilton called Thrush into a glass-walled conference room to discuss the allegations. The Times, which had helped ignite the #MeToo movement with its reporting on Harvey Weinstein, now found itself at the uncomfortable center of the story, in an intense moment The Fourth Estate director Liz Garbus documents in her series about the papers coverage of the Trump administration.
The Thrush scandal, which is covered in the series finale airing on Showtime Sunday night, is one of several such events where Garbus pulls back the curtain on The New York Timess news-gathering process, and on the humanity and fallibility of its journalists. Though Bumiller can be seen in the episode shooing a camera operator away from the closed-door meeting with Thrush, Times executive editor Dean Baquet ultimately allowed Garbuss cameras to track parts of the unfolding story, including the call where he told the D.C. bureau by speakerphone the results of an investigation into Thrush, and that the reporter would be suspended for two months.
“We had been following Glenn as a reporter, and we were really invested in that story,” Garbus said, speaking by phone on Tuesday. “We had to stay on top of Dean. Elisabeth and some of the other editors . . . wanted Dean to lead. So we just kept on checking in with Dean and saying, When are you gonna be ready to talk about it? He allowed us to shoot the phone call. I thought that it was brave that he did. It would have been easy to say, Sorry, Liz. This is [regarding] personnel. But they let us in.”
“There are always lines of privacy in a documentary,” Garbus said. “You just have to know when its important for your story to push back and fight. Clearly, [with] the Glenn story, it was important to keep pushing, to make sure we could finish that story.”
Shot over the 15 months between Trumps inauguration day and the April announcement that the Times had won three Pulitzer Prizes, the series has entranced media-world obsessives; its premiere delivered 1 million viewers across platforms, on par with the debut of Showtimes political doc series, The Circus. It has done so by turning bylines into fully fleshed-out TV characters, showing reporters like Maggie Haberman apologizing to her child over FaceTime for working late; Jeremy W. Peters chatting amiably with former White House strategist Steve Bannon, before Bannon denounces him and the rest of the press to a barn full of supporters; and Yamiche Alcindor, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, interviewing legislators on immigration policy. Underpinned by a tense score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and deploying tweets as a visual and storytelling device, Garbus conveys the tempo of life for reporters tracking an unpredictable president.
Garbus said she had an agreement with the Times designed to protect the papers sources, whose names are bleeped out in the documentary, but not one that allowed the paper editorial sway over what was included in the series. It was up to individual reporters and editors whether they wanted to collaborate with the crew and consent to be followed, Garbus said, adding, “They had the right to review the episodes before we delivered them, to make sure we were not including any references to any confidential sources. But that was it. It wasnt about how they were portrayed. They are an institution that has had public editors. Every time they put out an article, theyre criticized by the left and right. Theyre so used to being scrutinized that they were well behaved about the process.”
At first, Thrush had been a central figure in the documentary. But after Vox published the piece by Laura McGann, who accused Thrush of harassing her while they were co-workers at Politico and also detailed similar allegations from other young women, he was no longer filmed, Garbus said. Thrush issued a statement apologizing “for any situation where I behaved inappropriately.” Since then, the Times has moved him to another beat, covering social-welfare programs.
On Monday, the Thrush story resurfaced in a Jezebel piece, in which McGann said she was the victim of a smear campaign orchestrated, in part, by people close to Thrush. “I dont know everything that was said about me,” McGann told Jezebel. “But what I can say is that some of these things were outright false and humiliating.” The worst, she said, “was when I found out reporters inside The New York Times in Washington and New York were talking about how I had performed a lewd act inside the Politico newsroom on a senior male editor, or possibly multiple male editors.” Jezebel also published portions of a letter Thrushs lawyer sent to Vox arguing that McGann could not objectively report the story because she was alleging harassment herself. Thrush declined to comment for this piece.
Garbus has read the Jezebel piece and said she did not see Times staffers impugning McGann during her time in the newsroom. “Not that it didnt happen,” Garbus said, “but I didnt see any of that. But that [Jezebel] piece was certainly upsetting.” A Times spokeswoman, responding to Vanity Fairs questions about the Jezebel story, said, “The Jezebel articles suggestions—that the Times was influenced by rumors, or that the people who made the decision about Glenns punishment were spreading rumors about the Vox reporter—are false. We made the decision based on numerous interviews, over 30, as we have said. We approached this investigation assuming that the Vox story was accurate, and made no effort to discredit it or the reporter.”
There are other ways in which The Fourth Estate, while revealing the commitment and skill of the Times newsroom, also shows its weaknesses, including in the lack of racial diversity in the Washington bureau. (The rare reporter of color followed in the series, Alcindor, has since left to take a job as the White House correspondent for PBS NewsHour.) “The Times has heard a lot about that since our show has aired, and its something that they are not happy about and not proud of, and I do think there is going to be more attention paid to it,” Garbus said. “New York, that newsroom is more diverse, but they still have a long way to go. Having such a white newsroom affects your coverage. One has to wonder if a more diverse newsroom would have done better in 2016 than they did.”
Perhaps the critique the Times gets the most is from readers wanting more of their political ideology reflected. “From the point of view of the left, people want the paper to have a lot more outrage, to use stronger language, to have much more voice,” Garbus said. “On the right, they feel they dont cover anything positive the administration does, or affect their values or lives, or are elitist.”
Garbus feels the primary force propelling the Times newsroom was less about political instincts than killer ones. “My sense is their ideology is really about one thing,” Garbus said. “Getting stories out first and beating their competitors.”
Update 1:31pm: This piece has been updated to clarify the end of Thrushs appearances in the documentary.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Rebecca KeeganRebecca Keegan is a Hollywood Correspondent for Vanity Fair.