Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s debatably sensationalist Trump exposé, has dominated the post-holiday news cycle. The book includes shocking quotes from Steve Bannon (“He’s lost it”) and accounts of Trump’s bizarre behavior inside the White House; in fact some of the book’s content is outrageous enough that a parody tweet claiming the President watches a television channel exclusively devoted to gorilla fights required debunking.
The Gorilla Channel Incident is either a sign of the imminent collapse of public discourse or the first great meme of 2018 https://t.co/zIa95Oo59p
— The New York Times (@nytimes) January 6, 2018
the gorilla channel is twitter itself, and we’re all watching it.
— Tyler Reinhard (@abolishme) January 6, 2018
Not to mention, Wolff himself is known for being a serial exaggerator. Should we believe that Fire and Fury is the credible work that Wolff presents it as? And is the media responsible for preventing Wolff’s anecdotes from being taken at face value?
Understandably, no news outlet has been able to independently confirm all of Wolff’s claims. Wolff gleaned uncensored information by infiltrating a disordered White House, and admittedly said whatever was needed to allow him maximum access, which doesn’t necessarily meet contemporary journalistic standards. According to Wolff, he managed to interview Trump on several occasions with the stipulation that Trump may not have understood he was being interviewed, “but it certainly was not off the record.”
This reporting style invites skepticism from career reporters at large news outlets. NPR’s Annalisa Quinn critiqued Wolf’s methodology, saying that he “prevents anyone from evaluating his reporting (as well as the motives of those giving him information), forcing us to trust him completely. But why should we be confident in Wolff’s unsourced assertions when he makes so many small factual errors with information that is publicly available (even in spite of the fact-checkers he thanks in the acknowledgments)?”
A note of caution on Fire and Fury pic.twitter.com/o9OzV7ltWm
— Katy Tur (@KatyTurNBC) January 3, 2018
Wolff’s mistakes tend to skew his stories in a more dramatic direction, implying that he’s writing to paint a picture that’s just a bit larger than life. His categorization of the Russian dossier as a document used to blackmail Trump, as opposed to the true purpose of the document – a collection of potentially blackmail-able information, is a prime example.
Thankfully, many pundits have settled for considering the book a mildly hyperbolic reflection of the general atmosphere inside the White House rather than a factual account of its inner conflicts. David Brooks, a New York Times contributor, said it “may not be entirely credible,” but that it “fits the narrative people are used to hearing.” Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio wrote for CNN with a similar sentiment, saying that the book’s most important function is not its minutia, but providing “the impression of a President ill-suited for the world’s most important job.”
Wolff’s go-to defense when his credibility is questioned is to assert that Trump himself has little to no credibility. This amounts to more of a deflection than a defense, as Wolff is yet to release recordings to back up his most striking reports. Instead, Fire and Fury’s introduction warns that the book’s material should be taken with a grain of salt given the unreliability of its subjects.
— Katy Tur (@KatyTurNBC) January 3, 2018
Since most people will not read Fire and Fury for themselves, it is crucial that the reality-adjacent nature of the book is communicated along with the major bombshells it revealed. Trump critics in the media world are faced with a crucial choice: suspend disbelief to report incriminating stories that fuel the fears of the resistance, or uphold journalistic standards by acknowledging the book’s flaws.
We shouldn’t require that Wolff’s work be discarded given that Bannon has not denied a single attributed quote nor have any major details been outright falsehoods–but if the media wants to maintain their journalistic authority, they must stay the course on holding Wolff accountable for his writing.