Two weeks after the 2016 election, President-elect Donald J. Trump was in the middle of making the press rounds and had scheduled a meeting with The New York Times. But on the morning of Nov. 22, The Times learned via Twitter that Mr. Trump was canceling. He claimed that the “failing” New York Times had changed the conditions — “not nice.” The paper held its ground, saying it was the Trump team who had tried to change the rules when he asked that the meeting be off the record, which it had refused. Hours later, the president-elect changed course, tweeting the meeting was back on: “Look forward to it!”
That day, I was sitting at my desk, trying to figure out, as a filmmaker, how to make sense of the seismic political shift that had occurred. Everyone I knew was doing the same thing. Calls with ideas for films had been flying in since Mr. Trump’s win — people trying to get a handle on a future that they had not prepared for, that they desperately wanted to engage with. Nothing felt quite right — nothing felt big enough — until that morning. Scanning Mr. Trump’s Twitter feed, I thought, “I want to be a fly on the wall for that meeting.” Now all I had to do was convince The Times!
Respect for the First Amendment is in my DNA. My father was a civil liberties lawyer; he fought for Lenny Bruce’s right to offend when his comedy routine violated New York’s obscenity statutes in 1964, and for American neo-Nazis’ right to march in 1978 in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Ill., where many Holocaust survivors lived. Now we have a sitting president who called the free press “the enemy of the people,” frequently singling out The Times for derision his bully pulpit.
It seemed to me that story was extraordinary from The Times’s point of view as well. How would the organization take stock of this new era, one that it — and its peers — hadn’t fully understood during the 2016 election, and rethink coverage amid a chaotic administration with little transparency?
I reached out to an old friend, Jonathan Mahler, who writes for The Times Magazine, and he introduced me to the editor Sam Dolnick. We had coffee in The Times’s cafeteria and I made my pitch: I wanted to tell the story of the first year of the Trump presidency, as seen through the eyes of the journalists on the front lines covering it. Sam seemed open, and he brought me to meet the executive editor, Dean Baquet. To my great pleasure and even greater surprise, Dean liked it. “I get it,” he said.