New York magazine has published an excerpt from journalist Michael Wolff’s forthcoming book, "Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House," which is a purportedly blunt and deeply sourced assessment of the administration.
Wolff writes that Donald Trump never actually planned to be president. He writes that Australian media tycoon Rupert Murdoch once called Trump a “fucking idiot.” Wolff also claims Trump apparently didn’t know who former House Speaker John Boehner was until after the 2016 presidential election.
It is shocking stuff. It also may very well be a load of garbage.
First, Wolff's sourcing is dubious. Most of his reporting hinges on the say-so of anonymous sources. That does not inspire confidence.
It’s okay to use anonymous sources in journalism. Reporters have been doing it for decades! But when a story is particularly damning, unflattering, or difficult to believe, both the author and reader benefit greatly from at least one person who is willing to go on the record. The stuff published Wednesday doesn’t really come close to that.
True, the excerpt published by New York magazine includes a few on-the-record quotes, but at least one supposed source, former deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh, has already disputed that she said anything close to what Wolff reported.
Then there’s the issue of the easily disprovable suggestion that Trump didn't know who Boehner was in 2016. This just is not true. Trump has referenced the former House Speaker by name several times over the years, and they have even golfed together!
It’s possible that when Wolff quotes Trump as saying “who’s that?” in reference to Boehner, the then-president elect meant it as a dismissive jab. Wolff never makes it clear what the president meant, which further undercuts the reader’s ability to trust that the author is credible and reliable.
There’s yet another problem with Wolff's sourcing, and it goes well-beyond the usual issues presented by relying on nameless citations.
The problem here is that the president is a liar who has surrounded himself with other liars, some more shameless and notorious than others. Considering Wolff relied on fabulists as sources, the problem of anonymous citation seems secondary. On-the-record, off-the-record, it doesn’t really matter when sources are outright liars.
Consider, for example, Breitbart News chief and former White House strategist Steve Bannon, whose fingerprints are all over Wolff's reporting. Bannon is a liar and a political agitator. He has a big mouth and an axe to grind against Trump’s inner circle, especially after he lost his White House gig last year. This context, and the fact that Bannon is one of Wolff’s juiciest sources, rightly casts a shadow over what Wolff reports.
Remember: Breitbart News itself is doing nothing to dispute the unflattering anti-Trump quotes attributed to Bannon.
This brings us to our second and final point: Wolff himself is an unreliable narrator. He is not exactly enthusiastic about fact-checking and he is known to embellish incidents, quotes, and relayed anecdotes.
Consider the following passage from a 2004 New Republic profile (which generally had nice things to say about him!):
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....
So where does that leave us?
It leaves us with an excerpt that is mostly the say-so of anonymous sources. It leaves us with Bannon and Breitbart News all but taking credit for some of the more damning quotes. And it all comes from a writer who is known more for his ability to "create scenes" rather than recreate them.
Put more simply, this Fire and Fury stuff sure is entertaining. But take it all with a grain of salt.