A March Madness-style bracket to find the most loathed man in media might include Rupert Murdoch biographer, movie theater scofflaw, and resident killjoy Michael Wolff as its No. 1 overall seed. The ornery press critic is, as Fox News’ Howard Kurtz once said with understatement, “rarely impressed by anyone other than himself.” And immediate reactions to the rollout of a new, likely overwritten book about the first year in Donald Trump’s White House are likely already feeding Wolff’s Vanity Fair-sized ego.
Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House will probably sell bigly. But I implore you all, before latching onto the sort of two-scoops-of-ice-cream anecdotes that have inspired many a tweeted screenshot, to consider the source: the same Trumpian gremlin who’s often been admonished for the very same brand of writing over the past two decades.
The PR tour for Wolff’s book, out Jan. 9, began in earnest on Wednesday. The Guardian, which got a copy “ahead of publication from a bookseller in New England,” wrote up Steve Bannon’s reaction to a Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a group of Russians in 2016 contained in the book: “treasonous, or unpatriotic, or bad shit.” Hours later, New York magazine reportedly pushed up its pre-planned publication of an excerpt that would be widely shared by political media types for its intimate retellings of Donald Trump’s cluelessness during the transition—Who’s John Boehner?—his apparent inability to make it to the Fourth Amendment during a lesson about the Constitution, and his reprimanding the White House’s housekeeping staff for picking his shirts up off the floor apparently against his wishes.
“Few people who knew Trump had illusions about him,” Wolff breathlessly writes. “That was his appeal: He was what he was. Twinkle in his eye, larceny in his soul.”
It’s hard to imagine what exactly that means. But it sounds fun and breezy while appearing to take no prisoners—classic Wolff fare. The published selections portray Trump as stupid and vindictive, his aides as basically good-faith underlings struggling to manage a walking, talking national security threat. And New York included a lengthy editor’s note on how The Hollywood Reporter contributing editor landed such fly-on-the-wall accounts, which included extensive direct quotations:
Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Wolff says, he was able to take up “something like a semi-permanent seat on a couch in the West Wing”—an idea encouraged by the president himself. Because no one was in a position to either officially approve or formally deny such access, Wolff became “more a constant interloper than an invited guest.” There were no ground rules placed on his access, and he was required to make no promises about how he would report on what he witnessed.
Since then, he conducted more than 200 interviews. In true Trumpian fashion, the administration’s lack of experience and disdain for political norms made for a hodgepodge of journalistic challenges. Information would be provided off-the-record or on deep background, then casually put on the record. Sources would fail to set any parameters on the use of a conversation, or would provide accounts in confidence, only to subsequently share their views widely. And the president’s own views, private as well as public, were constantly shared by others.
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These are the type of lax ground rules that allow writers plenty of wiggle room—the type of which Wolff has long been known to take full advantage, at times with questionably accurate results. The difference is that the people in Trump’s orbit are likely even less reliable sources than many of his past subjects.
Wolff’s 1998 book about pursuing digital riches, Burn Rate, was met by largely positive reviews in the midst of the dot-com bubble. But longtime press critic Jack Shafer—perhaps as close to a defender as Wolff has—also wondered in his take for Slate whether Wolff’s nitty-gritty details could be trusted:
Wolff exploits the human tendency to confuse frankness and cruelty with truth-telling. And by repeatedly reminding the reader of what a dishonest, scheming little shit he is, he seeks to inflate his credibility. A real liar wouldn’t tell you that he’s a liar as Wolff does, would he? The wealth of verbatim quotations—constituting a good third of this book—also enhances Burn Rate’s verisimilitude. But should it? Wolff writes that he jotted down bits of dialogue on his legal pads during meetings while others composed to-do lists. Not to accuse anyone of Stephen Glassism, but I’d love to see Wolff post those copious notes on his promotional Web site, www.burnrate.com.
Michelle Cottle made similar observations in a 2004 profile for the New Republic, published when Wolff was a media writer at Vanity Fair, tut-tutting him as “neither as insightful nor as entertaining when dissecting politics.” She continued:
Much to the annoyance of Wolff’s critics, the scenes in his columns aren’t recreated so much as created—springing from Wolff’s imagination rather than from actual knowledge of events. Even Wolff acknowledges that conventional reporting isn’t his bag. Rather, he absorbs the atmosphere and gossip swirling around him at cocktail parties, on the street, and especially during those long lunches at Michael’s....“His great gift is the appearance of intimate access,” says an editor who has worked with Wolff. “He is adroit at making the reader think that he has spent hours and days with his subject, when in fact he may have spent no time at all.”
Even the late David Carr, would-be reverend of the media class from his New York Times pulpit, wrote that “Wolff has never distinguished himself as a reporter” when reviewing his 2008 Murdoch biography, The Man Who Owns The News. “Over the years, Carr wrote, “he has succeeded in cutting through the clutter by being far less circumspect—and sometimes more vicious—than other journalists, whom he views as archaic losers about to go the way of the Walkman.” Factual errors be damned, Carr added with a begrudging thumbs-up, for “Wolff prefers the purity of his constructs.”
That approach would seem to be even more dangerous with a book sold as an “inside story” of a White House that has proven atrocious at narrating its own story with any grasp of the truth. Since the selections of Wolff’s book have dropped, administration officials trotted out the usual cries of false anecdotes and fake sources—usually a good sign for those in search of the facts. But journalists have already started poking holes in some of the juicier aspects of Wolff’s account. Just one example: a simple Google search proves Trump has previously spoken about Boehner at length, making the notion that he would respond “Who?” to a mention of the former House Speaker feel dubious at best. But such details are what gets shared or aggregated, often uncritically.
None of that is to say that Fire and Fury won’t be an entertaining read. Wolff has been a frequent critic of the media’s Trump coverage, lambasting the press earlier this year for portraying Trump as “an inept and craven sociopath.” He’s also spoken in favor of journalists acting only as stenographers. Those may have been sly plays to get greater access to the Trump Administration before biting its hand en route to a bestseller.
But if these early excerpts are any indication, Wolff’s turn at stenography led to the same basic observations as everybody else—that the administration is chock full of back-stabbing, out-of-their-depth staffers washed up from a campaign that no one, even the man who’s now president, expected to win. The fact that the internet has latched onto so many of these colorful—if only “notionally accurate”—anecdotes may say less about Wolff, that much-hated media man, than it does about the rest of us.