Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather set a new low for news media in 2004 with his fraudulent “scoop” alleging then-President George W. Bush received preferential treatment in early 1970s when he served in the Air National Guard.
CBS’ careless and ultimately dishonest handling of the crudely forged Bush papers cost Rather his job. Far worse, the incident severely damaged the credibility of an industry that has long fought against claims it is politically biased in favor of one specific political party.
The 2004 Rather-gate fiasco also gave birth to the noxious “fake but accurate" defense, which seeks to absolve newsrooms of the sin of publishing erroneous or flat-out false reports with an argument amounting to little more than "close enough" or even "this conforms to my prejudices, and that's good enough for me."
On Monday, “fake but accurate” reared its ugly head on MSNBC as New York journalist Michael Wolff addressed the critics who’ve noted the many errors in his new book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.
"If it rings true, it is true,” Wolff argued.
MSNBC’s Katy Tur nodded along, saying herself that much of what she read in his book “feels true."
But this is not journalism. This is just confirmation bias.
Though Fire and Fury has found an eager and willing audience in the press, it has also found its fair share of critics in media, as many have warned readers that the author has an easy relationship with the truth.
Some parts of Wolff’s book appear to be true. Parts of it have even been corroborated by media and White House sources.
Other parts of his book, however, don't pass the smell test. Former deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh, for example, has disputed that she said anything close to what Wolff quoted her as saying. Wolff also writes that Trump may not have known who former Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio was in 2016. Nonsense. Trump has referenced the former speaker by name several times over the years. Trump and Boehner have even golfed together! Wolff also portrays White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller as a novice when it comes to immigration policy. That’s just not true. Anyone who covered Congress during the years that Miller worked for then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., can tell you this is an obvious falsehood.
Then there are the multiple typos and the misidentification of various journalists and lobbyists.
Lastly, let’s not overlook that many of Wolff’s sources are known to be untrustworthy, including former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg and former chief strategist Steve Bannon, or that the author himself is a notoriously unreliable narrator.
Wolff, who did not speak to the president, the vice president, or any member of the cabinet for his book, tried Monday to dismiss what he called "so-called errors," saying they’re the sort of thing you'd find "in any book.” We’re afraid it goes well beyond that.
Fire and Fury is an entertaining read, and many of the unflattering White House anecdotes appear to be factual and accurate. It’s all embarrassing for the administration. No doubt about that. The fact that they granted Wolff access on its own is an embarrassment to Team Trump. Did no one think to vet the author before welcoming him?
That said, the problems with Wolff’s book are many. Too many, in fact, for it to be taken with anything but a huge grain of salt. It certainly isn't the sort of thing that should be held up as a legitimate news item by serious and legitimate newsrooms. To believe Fire and Fury would require the total suspension of disbelief. It would require that the reader accept the word of unreliable sources as transcribed by an unreliable narrator. No thanks.
But, hey: For people who believe something is true if it “feels” or “rings” true, this book is sure to be a hell of a good time. It’ll probably even be a best-seller this year.
“Fake but accurate” has never had it so good as it has in the Trump era.