Politics & Policy

Michael Wolff’s Troubled Relationship with the Truth

Author Michael Wolff appears on NBC’s Today show to promote his book Fire and Fury in 2018. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
It’s hard to sort out fact from fiction in Fire and Fury.

Bespectacled, bald-capped, and wearing a gray suit, Fred Armisen was a convincing Michael Wolff on last week’s Saturday Night Live. Appearing as a guest on a mock Morning Joe to discuss his tell-all book about the early days of the Trump White House, Fire and Fury, Armisen’s Wolff was pressed by the hosts about its veracity. His response? “You read it, right? And you liked it? You had fun? Then what’s the problem? You got the gist, so shut up! Even the stuff that’s not true, it’s true.”

That’s a good summation of not just the spirit in which Fire and Fury was written, but the ethos that has governed Michael Wolff’s career. As a gossip columnist — for six years beginning in the late ’90s, he penned the weekly “This Media Life” column for New York magazine — Wolf presented himself as an authoritative, in-the-know conduit between the who’s who of New York City media moguls and his readers. Behind the scenes, however, his peers knew him to be reckless, with a willingness to do anything to get the story and a disregard for proper journalism practices. He lacks an eye for the little things that can drastically change a story — as New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman said, he often “gets basic details wrong” and “creates a narrative that is . . . conceptually true.” Too often, he allows the reader to decide for himself what to believe: Don’t write the truth, write for the reader’s entertainment.

Then, in 2004, Wolff exploded onto the scene of political journalism with a columnist position at Vanity Fair. In a profile for The New Republic, Michelle Cottle labeled his new post a woeful misplacement: His columns were “decidedly unfresh” and “disappointing,” and his political perspective “not exactly nuanced.” While tolerated in the gossip world, his penchant for the unethical — “he has a reputation for busting embargoes and burning sources by putting off-the-record comments on the record” — had no place in a position requiring research and playing by the rules. Perhaps, Cottle wondered, Wolff might grow into it?

It doesn’t seem that he has. Right in the author’s note of Fire and Fury, Wolff says that although he knows some of the people he spoke with gave him accounts that were untrue, he will let the reader decide what to believe. (By his account, he also still doesn’t seem to have learned what “off-the-record” information is. He thinks it means granting a source anonymity and quoting them; to the rest of the journalism world, it means the information is un-publishable.) Ultimately, his central theme, that Donald Trump and his staff were unprepared for his presidency, is the only part of the book that Wolff is confident enough to stand by. But what news does this break?

Unsurprisingly, the book also reads like one of Wolff’s gossip columns. Every few paragraphs, I instinctively lowered my head, as if to hear something whispered in my ear: “Trump and Melania don’t sleep in the same bed.” “Corey Lewandowski is having an affair.” “The president is mentally unfit to serve, say his advisers.” Reading the book on a Kindle showed me that other readers found these bits of gossip the most noteworthy. Amazon allows fellow Kindle users to see the most-underlined segments, and every few pages, I came across a juicy tidbit of information that 3,000 fellow readers had heard whispered into their ears too.

Counting gossip as political reporting might’ve seemed out of bounds in 2004, but today it fits right in with our desperation for dirt on the “other side,” without minding too much about those pesky hurdles of “fact-checking” and “the truth.” Take the ongoing debate over whether Trump will suffer a heart attack (it was Wolff’s book that fueled questions about the president’s physical and mental fitness). The White House doctor — not a Trump Tower holdover, but the physician for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama — vouched for the president’s health, fielding a mountain of questions during a press event this week, and still many in the media decided to rely on their personal observations. (My favorite is the conspiracy theory that Trump’s doctor, on orders from the president, is lying about how tall Trump is.) The assumption seems to be that because the doctor isn’t verifying our beliefs, he’s probably lying.

Because Wolff’s book depends on the reader’s addiction to information that backs up their pre-existing beliefs about the president, it’s hard to know which parts of it can be believed. What’s real and what do we want to be real? If Wolff couldn’t — or didn’t bother to — figure it out, what hope do readers have? Reading Fire and Fury is fumbling in the dark, it’s grabbing ahold of familiar shapes — Steve Bannon, is that you? Kellyanne Conway? Fox News? — in a desperate attempt to find the enlightenment it was supposed to bring. Some things are obviously false, as has been pointed out: Donald Trump didn’t know who House speaker John Boehner was? (They had golfed together.) Chief of Staff John Kelly learned about his appointment via Twitter? (The Times reported Trump and Kelly discussed it days in advance.) But the other truths and untruths lie somewhere in between.

Wolff is loving every minute of it.

Wolff is loving every minute of it. Trump calls Wolff a liar, Wolff calls Trump unfit to serve. Trump threatens a libel suit, Wolff’s publisher pushes the book to an earlier print date. Trump says Wolff didn’t talk to him, Wolff reveals they talked for three hours (that must be a record for the least amount of time the author of a tell-all spoke to the subject). While most he-said-she-said arguments are resolved by determining who’s telling the truth, the question here is: “Who’s lying less?”

All this hasn’t stopped information from the book being cited in news articles. And now, Endeavor Content has purchased the film and television rights, with Wolff serving as executive producer on a soon-to-be-announced TV show.

But the media aren’t the only culprits here. As consumers, we don’t seem particularly eager to change our standards for where we get our information. As long as we’re eager to hear only what we want to believe, journalists like Wolff will keep selling it to us.