US President Donald Trump is forever “about to be impeached”. The 25th Amendment is alive. Or so the US media would have us believe.
Predictions have reached fever pitch with juicy, damaging excerpts and a rushed release of Michael Wolff’s White House expose Fire and Fury. The book sold out of its first printing on Amazon in just a few hours despite the threat of a lawsuit from Trump’s lawyers, and has already fueled days of commentary.
Based on six months and 200 interviews hiding in plain sight, many of the stories were gained due to the naivety of staffers, and in-depth access granted to Wolff, a long-time contact of Trump. The author described his presence in the White House a “constant interloper”. But who is Wolff and does his journalism deserve to cut through the fake news era?
What are media commentators saying?
Drew Magary writes for GQ that Wolff “represents the absolute worst of New York media-cocktail-circuit inbreeding” but has done what any journalist should with such remarkable access. Meanwhile, Matthew d’Ancona in The Guardian describes Wolff as a man with a “terrier-like pursuit of the truth” and “diffident charm when handling his subjects”.
A less favourable view comes from Masha Gessen, writing for the The New Yorker. She writes that the Wolff book plays to the passions of the crowd without proper journalistic checks and balances, exactly matching Trump’s style:
Wolff’s book seems to occupy a middle ground: between the writing of White House newspaper reporters, who exercise preternatural restraint when writing about the Administration, and the late-night comedians, who offer a sense of release from that restraint because they are not held to journalistic standards of veracity.
Are the words in Fire and Fury actually true though?
This is hardly the man’s first rodeo. Wolff has written for USA Today, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair and New York Magazine and is a regular panellist on television. Wolff is the author of six prior books, including the bestselling Burn Rate and The Man Who Owns the News, a Rupert Murdoch biography. His penchant for dramatic errors is well known. A review of the book in NPR points this out:
When it comes to facts, Wolff is interested in the spirit, not the letter, and maybe not even the sentence. For instance, on the Russia dossier published last year by BuzzFeed News, he writes, “[Former British spy Christopher] Steele assembled a damaging report … suggesting that Donald Trump was being blackmailed by the Putin government.” The report actually suggested the Russians were gathering information that could potentially be used to blackmail Trump, not that the Russians were actively blackmailing Trump at that very minute. (Wolff’s mistakes often err on the side of the dramatic.)
Errors and oversights have been discovered and continue to be revealed. Most notably, White House correspondent Maggie Haberman said the book was “notionally true” but had several incorrect details:
There are other parts that are factually wrong. I mean the thing about Michael Wolff and his style, which apparently nobody in the White House appears to have done a cursory Google search on him and sort of what his M.O. is, but he believes in larger truths and narratives. So he creates a narrative that is notionally true, that’s conceptually true. The details are often wrong. And I can — I can see several places in the book that are wrong.
Matt Schlapp, chair of the Conservative Political Action Conference, tweeted Wolff failed to get any comment from CPAC even though an entire chapter on the group is published in Fire and Fury.
Meanwhile, Gessen argues two out of the three claims about Steve Bannon’s comments on meeting with Russian operatives as “treasonous” are false, but Wolff is not concerned with corroboration.
The New York Times also reported some errors:
Mr. Wolff writes that CNN reported on Mr. Trump being accused of an exotic sexual practice with prostitutes in an intelligence dossier; in fact, BuzzFeed News reported those details. He also describes Mr. Trump as being unaware of the identity of John Boehner, the former Republican House speaker; in fact, the pair had golfed together long before Mr. Wolff began visiting the White House.
So how can it be defended?
Wolff’s supporters are not deterred by claims of falsehoods and loose ethics. To them, the portrait of a hot mess is worth a loss of small details.
“Do not be distracted by those who are scouring the book for minor errors. The big story is what matters, and Wolff has nailed it,” d’Ancona concludes in The Guardian.
As LA Times staffer Virginia Heffernan notes, Wolff’s dialogue is “suspiciously Netflix-ready”:
But who cares, really? Wolff’s dislikable. He plays by his own rules. Big surprise. No one likable or rule-bound would have been able to abide this unsavory crew — Murdoch, Bannon, Roger Ailes, or, for God’s sake, Trump — long enough to squeeze this much big, fat, soapy story out of them.