Author Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury is supposed to be an explosive account of palace intrigue and turmoil within the Trump White House, and is at the same time a prime example of why Americans’ trust in the media is at an all-time low. What is meant to be a tell-all about what’s really happening in the corridors of power has thus far come off as the exaggerated, unsourced story of a fabulist.
Wolff is not a marginal figure in the media. He’s been a longtime journalist for prestige publications, with bylines in Vanity Fair, GQ, USA Today, and more. With Fire and Fury, Wolff says that he was granted unparalleled access to the West Wing, able to come and go as he pleased and merely recounted what was occurring.
Wolff’s account of the White House is, however, literally unbelievable. His account implies that President Trump did not know who John Boehner was at a time when Boehner and Trump were frequent golfing buddies. Multiple members of the White House have disputed what he quoted them saying, while the way that Wolff’s account is written makes it impossible for readers to discern if Wolff was actually there or is recreating conversations based on interviews with unnamed sources. Wolff recreates situations that some subjects have disputed ever occurred.
The White House has not disputed everything written in the book, nor disputed that Wolff did indeed have a kind of access to the White House for a period of time that was unprecedented among members of the media. But the way that Wolff has apparently played fast and loose with quotes, facts, and more in his work of nonfiction is a reason that can be used to dismiss his entire account.
Some members of the media have adopted a “fake but accurate” characterization of Wolff’s account. “The story he’s telling rings true,” CNN’s Brian Stelter wrote. “Rings true” is also the phrase used by MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough. Many in the media accept that, sure, Wolff may have fudged some details, made everything out to be worse than it is, but the basic narrative — that the Trump White House is in chaos and many of the president’s aides doubt his ability to do the job — is true, corroborated by others’ reporting.
As Stelter wrote, “If even half the book is true, it’s deeply disturbing.” But Wolff’s sloppiness and poor sourcing make it impossible to determine what is true and what isn’t true. And as it’s been established that much of what was written could not possibly be true, it’s possible that none of it is, and other members of the media should stop holding up Wolff’s account as reliable.
Wolff has historically had a poor reputation for accuracy and sourcing. The New York Times’ David Carr wrote of his 2008 Rupert Murdoch biography, “He gets some of it wrong.” A piece in the New Republic in 2004 accuses Wolff’s reporting of being “created — springing from Wolff’s imagination rather than from actual knowledge of events.”
At a time when Americans’ trust in the media has never been lower, holding up Wolff’s account of White House intrigue as having any amount of credibility is only going to make it worse. The book’s credibility is seriously in question and using it to drive the narrative of a White House in chaos is going to ring false with the public.
Journalists need to be held to a higher standard. As has been documented, the media has been remarkably sloppy in covering the Trump White House, perhaps chasing the juicy sensationalism rather than sticking to the facts. Americans everywhere deserve a media they can trust, but Wolff’s book, and the praise it’s received from many quarters of the media, is only going to result in a more divided culture.
Kevin Glass (@KevinWGlass) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. Previously he was director of outreach and policy at the Franklin Center and managing editor at Townhall. His views here are his own.
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