Who’s Afraid of Michael Wolff?: The Uses of “Fire and Fury”

I’m a freak about timing. To me, a story without a peg is like a song without a hook. But it’s taken me quite awhile to find a copy of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Since I’m less interested in the book than in its reception, I guess it’s okay to file late.

About the book: It’s not exactly All the Presidents Men. More like 50 Shades of Jared Kushner. Which is to say, most of the characters are so banal that you have to ford through them to get to the juicy stuff. Wolff’s prose doesn’t help—long, flat stretches are broken by a catty glee that falls far short of wryness. Still, the scandalous stuff is irresistible, providing the same dose of pleasure that a good tabloid offers. Priceless revelations include the scoop on Donald Trump’s hair (a combover worthy of a pastry chef); the real reason Trump decided to run (he saw it as a way to start a TV network, and, like the two con-artists in The Producers, he was counting on losing); Melania Trump’s horror when she realized that she would actually have to be the First Lady; and, more ominously, the “peculiar and haunting” belief among Trump’s associates, not that he was guilty of colluding with the Russians, “but that he was guilty of so much else.” This is the secret hiding in plain sight, but in Wolff’s book it’s just another aperçu. That’s the problem with Fire and Fury: It buries its significance in dish.

Still, this is the hottest book about American politics in a generation or more, a runaway best seller in a market usually dominated by the afterlife and dogs. Wolff’s success has produced a geshrei of resentment among reviewers, most of whom are professional political reporters. You would think from this consensus that he had violated all the rules of the trade. He hasn’t, not by a long shot, and his critics, some of whom claim he’s repeated stuff they’ve already published, are really affirming that his book is essentially accurate about the scene at the White House. Whether Donald Trump is pathological or just what Rupert Murdoch calls him—“an idiot”—a lot of the president’s colleagues apparently think he’s out of control. When certified Washington journalists document that, it’s above reproach, but when an outlier like Wolff makes the same claim, and makes a bundle to boot, there’s shock-horror in the newsroom.

Fire and Fury does contain many small errors of the sort that rivals of authors like to point out in their carping reviews. And the book is certainly loosely sourced. Wolff sprinkles sugar on those who feed him dirt (Steve Bannon and Murdoch are cast as fonts of insight), but, aside from their quotes, it isn’t always clear who told the author what. Of course, this sort of informed speculation is common in journalism. Look for the word memo (as in “Washington Memo”) above any New York Times story and you’ll find the same m.o. As for the accusation that Wolff misled his sources about his real intentions: excuuuse me, but reporters sometimes do that in order to get the story. Just last week, a writer for the Financial Times, which is as respectable a read as you can get on peach paper, took a job at a London men’s club so she could expose its predatory sexual culture. No one gasped at her tactics. So, why is Wolff suspect?

I’d say it has less to do with his lapses than with the crisis the media are facing from the rise of Internet-based forms that make stars of amateurs with exotic points of view. Add to that the din of partisan voices on talk radio and cable, not to mention the legion of weaponized bots. The tenor of information is shifting under those innovations. This is a genuine moment of reckoning for old media, and the result has been a drawing in of wagons around the concept that only established journals can be trusted. That’s pretty much the selling point of The Washington Post and the Times, and their urgency is warranted given the assault on truth from the White House and its enablers in Congress. The danger is real, and so is the anxiety it produces in reporters whose craft is under siege. But Wolff is not responsible for this state of emergency, and his work doesn’t reflect the decline and fall of real news. Its success is a product of the growing audience for political gossip. The president has made the operations of government supremely entertaining—realpolitik as a reality show. His election confirmed a fact that underlies the notoriety of Wolff’s book and its inevitable screen adaptation: politics is pop.

If there’s a major problem with Fire and Fury, it’s not Wolff’s methodology but his sheer inability to place his material in context. Not that he’s obligated to be analytical (and the book is weakest when he tries), but, given the threat to democracy that Trump poses, reading this tell-all feels like thumbing through an exposé of Hitler’s sex life that barely deals with, say, the Holocaust. You want to take a shower because you’ve gotten such a kick out of all the dirt. The current crisis goes far beyond the question of whether the president is childlike or mentally ill, as Wolff insists. It involves the forces Trump has unleashed and the forces that have unleashed him. Wolff’s indifference to that climate reminds me of the problem with his reporting on media in general. He’s impressed by wealth to such an extent that he substitutes it for any moral or ideological stance. Wolff is a mogul worshiper, and their success is his only test of rectitude. It’s as if the media—the primary way we communicate publicly—is just a rivalrous fen with no social dimension. Failing to deal with the gestalt that shapes the press is a glaring omission in a press critic, and in the end it’s more telling than anything Wolff gets right.

Still, I’m constantly struck by what’s left out of stories in the mainstream media—info that might threaten a network’s image or reveal a paper’s biases. Journalistic institutions have principles, but also interests, and both influence the way they represent reality. That’s why the American press was organized from the get-go on the principle that the only way to derive the truth was to create a cacophony of voices. For all its risks, today’s unstable media climate is much closer to that original vision than the world of big syndicates and few networks that I grew up in. Authoritative reporting is important, but so are the insights of outsiders and wags. There’s plenty of room in journalism—or there ought to be—for work that presents a dark situation as a black comedy, a bonfire of the most vulgar vanities. It may not be history on a deadline, to cite an old definition of good journalism. But what Huckleberry Finn said about squirrel stew is also true of Fire and Fury: It’s “good eatin’.”  So, enjoy!