Here’s my take on Fire and Fury: Wolff’s book reads much much better than I expected. To categorize it as tabloidy or gossip-ridden reveals only ignorance and/or envy. He is a graceful and incisive writer who demonstrates true talent in penetrating and explaining the psyche of his subjects.
The specific anecdotes, that can always be disputed (as in the case of every book churned out by Bob Woodward) are exactly that: anecdotal and incidental. The real value of Wolff’s book is his tightly drawn framing narrative and story through line that frighteningly portray a stunning picture of an ignorant, petulant, semi-literate fool that is unfit to be dog catcher let alone president.
The real value of Wolff’s book is his tightly drawn framing narrative and story through line that frighteningly portray a stunning picture of an ignorant, petulant, semi-literate fool that is unfit to be dog catcher let alone president.
One can argue, certainly, that almost all the individual pieces of this mosaic have been previously revealed to some degree or another by the myriad daily and beat reports not to mention some of the deeper investigative pieces of the last year. But therein resides the structural weakness of the mainstream media….its incapacity and it “ethical” unwillingness to take all those jagged pieces of info and data, put them together in a razor sharp picture, and clearly call this most dangerous of presidents for exactly what he is.
As I noted before the whole book came out, Wolff was unbound from the he said/she said View From Nowhere shackles that imprison and retard daily mainstream reporting. And it makes a big difference. It’s the difference between reading a dry Labor Department report on pay inequality and being immersed fully in the lives of the bottom four-fifths of the population by reading, say, Barbara Ehrenreich‘s classic Nickle and Dimed.
Reading Fire and Fury is not a prurient experience. It is an immersive one in which the character of Trump and his bag of courtiers come alive on the page and stink up the whole room. It is the FIRST complete, whole, unvarnished, and no holds barred profile of this president and his administration and it will not and cannot be ignored except by those who are as illiterate as Trump himself.
Now…a few words about methods and sources and, in turn, the truthiness or not of the more salacious anecdotes. I am going to put on my arrogant hat as a career practitioner and retired professor of journalism specialized in interviewing techniques. I learned under fire 30 years ago when I did some Playboy interviews that 10,000 printable words required a minimum of 10-12 hours per interview and news-making content. Get the bombshell or don’t bother sending in the copy, said my editor Barry Golson. And he meant it.
I taught my students that central to interviewing is SEDUCTION (and that is not the same as deceit). Wolff clearly seduced, weaseled, confused and finagled his sources to get them yapping. Just as he should. Can he be trusted? Yes, even if some anecdotes cannot be verified and some sourcing is hazy. I have no idea, but here’s my best guess about how Wolff got so much dirt. I SUSPECT that he was as ambiguous as possible with his sources as to what was and was not on the record. I’m OK with that. I teach that. Going off the record MUST be explicit and mutual otherwise it is fictional. When I talk to somebody who knows I am a reporter I do not say “OK, now we will start the interview.” I get them talking ASAP and unless agreed to otherwise it is ON the record. I also suspect, with no hard evidence, that in some cases Wolff consciously took explicitly off the record material and put it on the record. Tsk tsk.
Ten members of the Society of Professional Journalists and several ethics nannies at Poynter just passed out hearing this. But, I am going to be straight with you and proclaim that if Wolff burned some of his sources, as I suspect, I have ZERO problem—in this case.
This is an exceptional administration that requires extraordinary measures and treatment. Burning sources, IN THIS CASE, is outweighed by the public service of telling the whole truth about this gang of chicken-brained delusional incompetents armed with nuclear weapons. I don’t give a flying fug if Wolff “betrayed the confidence” of Steve Bannon, or Steve Miller, or Dina Powell or Kellyanne Conway or Gary Cohn or Sam Nunberg or any other quisling lowlife that enables this monstrous man. Good for him. Unlike the Peter Bakers, the Maggie Habermans or the Robert Costas of the world, Wolff doesn’t have to worry one minute about placating any of these assholes in order to keep beat access open and not be declared persona non grata by the ruling circle.
I want to be clear: when I taught interviewing as the art of seduction, I forcefully made it clear that there is always an ethical chalk line that should not be crossed (even if it is always not clear where that line was). I told them, do NOT cross the line once you have determined its whereabouts but when you come back to write your story there better goddamn be some chalk on the soles of your shoes as evidence that you at least came right up to the line and squeezed every drop out of your sources.
If I had been Wolff’s editor, I would have said, in this case there is no line. Do whatever you have to bring back the real story. Democracy demands it. And that’s what he did—though I hardly believe that was Wolff’s civic commitment. But he DID perform an invaluable public service no matter what Michelle Kottle wrote about him 13 years ago. He isn’t going to get a job at The New York Times in return nor will he be appointed Ethics Chair at Poynter, but something tells me he really doesn’t give a shit.
Finally, a thought experiment. You know that I do not believe this is a fascist government. Incompetent, arrogant, ignorant, racist, bellicose, and demagogic with authoritarian tendencies but still (barely) within the institutions of the Republic. But here’s my hypothetical: just HOW authoritarian or dictatorial would an American admin have to be for the mainstream media to drop its moth-eaten pose as “objective observers” and declare themselves, outright, to be an oppositional media (at great risk for sure)?
My guess? Never. Wouldn’t happen. The Times, the Post and the networks would continue on, as is, under an openly authoritarian administration; they would comply with state-imposed limits, they would “balance” their reporting with the “side” of the Fuhrer and that is precisely why we need outlaws and maybe even sleazy rule breakers like Michael Wolff.