‘Every era gets the Boswell it deserves’

Michael Wolff appears on the Today show on Friday, January 5, 2018 (Photo by: Nathan Congleton via Getty Images)

Michael Wolff’s brand of journalism might be ugly—prioritizing access over accountability—but it’s the perfect match for the Trump era.

Often this year, The New York Times has faced backlash for being too nice. Critics picked apart White House reporter Michael Schmidt over the holidays for soft-balling an interview with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, trading the responsibility of pushing back for the privilege of access. The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan accused the Times of going too far in making friends with Trump, and being too defensive when called on it.

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A week later, Michael Wolff’s “front row” stylized narrative of the early days of the administration has taken access journalism under Trump into a whole new realm. From what we’ve been able to glean in the hours since the book was published, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House is a rollicking read, full of juicy gossip and seemingly unfiltered accounts. It paints a picture of an administration staffed by backstabbing political neophytes fumbling and failing to corral an accidental president who is often uninterested or unable to meet the demands of the job.

The criticism faced by the Times and the praise and attention for Wolff’s work could be seen as hypocritical, but only if the criteria on which they are judged is the same. The sort of reporting practiced by Schmidt and his colleagues at the Times and other outlets is, at its root, a slog: incremental beat reporting with little glamor. Access journalism, at its best, does not replace other forms of journalism—it augments it. And one could argue that Wolff never could have written his book without the hard work of journalists over the past year; the fire he catalogs was often fueled by stories from mainstream reporters.

Wolff deserves credit for producing a thoroughly readable portrait of the Trump administration’s chaos and lack of preparedness.

Journalists in 2017 experienced, in many ways, a boom period and also an incredibly unusual one. Times reporters—and many others at outlets like The Washington Post, Politico, Axios, and The Daily Beast—have become something like celebrities. The top levels of the mainstream press have enjoyed far more money and attention than in recent history. Trump’s attacks are a badge of honor for those trying to hold him accountable. Maggie Haberman, the breakout star of the Trump era, was characterized as a snake charmer by Slate.

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Journalists should not expect to hang onto that fame. A reality-star-loving, tabloid-style writer was bound to step in and grab some of the attention.

Access journalism is often disparaged because of the compromises it requires, but concerns that Wolff’s access to Trump would result in pulled punches have proven unfounded. Switch out the name of the subject, and the venerable media critic David Carr’s begrudging approval of the author’s 2008 biography of Rupert Murdoch could be printed today: “Much was made of Wolff’s alliance with Murdoch, that it would lead to complicity and sycophancy, but Wolff remains true to his nature, which is joyously nasty.”

Wolff deserves credit for producing a thoroughly readable portrait of the Trump administration’s chaos and lack of preparedness. He appears to have played a monster hand of access journalism poker, bluffing his way into the good graces of the administration by attacking mainstream reporters for critical reporting in the early months of the Trump presidency only to rake in the pot by producing a devastating account of those who considered him a sympathetic observer. He’s going to gain a lot of notoriety and make a ton of money.

But he also played a nefarious role in discrediting real reporting by hardworking journalists through his self-interested critiques. Just after the 2016 election, Wolff lambasted the entire industry, telling Digiday, “The media hasn’t done its job. It’s abdicated its responsibility, has lost itself somewhere.” After Trump’s inauguration, he wrote a column blaming journalists for abandoning basic principles, and followed that up by going on CNN and calling Brian Stelter, “quite a ridiculous figure.” In that same conversation, Wolff admitted he was “sucking up a bit to get access.” That brown-nosing seems to have paid off, as Wolff acknowledges in a passage describing Kellyanne Conway and Hope Hicks confiding in “a journalist they regarded as sympathetic.”

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Wolff’s fast-and-loose approach to the facts, summed up in Fire and Fury’s author’s note, runs the risk of overshadowing the parts of the book that are verifiably true. “Many of the accounts of what has happened in the Trump White House are in conflict with one another; many, in Trumpian fashion, are baldly untrue,” Wolff writes. “Those conflicts, and that looseness with the truth, if not with reality itself, are an elemental thread of the book. Sometimes I have let the players offer their versions, in turn allowing the reader to judge them. In others, I have, through a consistency in accounts and through sources I have come to trust, settled on a version of events I believe to be true.”

A version of events I believe to be true is the same bar Wolff sets for himself in his past work. Take Burn Rate, his 1998 take on the first internet boom, in which he writes, “I have stayed as close to the truth as I remember it or have a record of it….This is, however, a story. No doubt my memory has at moments exaggerated foibles and sometimes simplified the line between cause and effect. I am confident, however, that my memory has not distorted the truth.”

He appears to have played a monster hand of access journalism poker, bluffing his way into the good graces of the administration by attacking mainstream reporters for critical reporting in the early months of the Trump presidency only to rake in the pot by producing a devastating account of those who considered him a sympathetic observer.

Traditional White House reporters are playing a different game. Yes, they occasionally produce gossipy accounts of the president’s diet, both media and culinary, and they work to maintain relationships that will allow for sit-downs with principals. But they also probe beyond the surface of backstabbing and palace intrigue to unearth scoops—like the one the Times’s Schmidt broke a week after his sit-down with the president—that lead to the appointment of special prosecutors. They don’t allow themselves to rely on a reasonable facsimile of events that, in their minds, gets at some larger truth.

The truth that Wolff arrives at in Fire and Fury is pretty much the same one that a regular reader of political reporting for the past year would have gleaned from the work of journalists at mainstream papers. It involves an administration that was unprepared to take power, engaged in regular battles for power in West Wing fiefdoms, and led by a man more concerned with cable news coverage than intelligence briefings.

Wolff adds a palette of colors to that reporting, but his reputation for stretching the facts introduces a measure of risk in an environment in which the press is already under scrutiny. If specific details that Wolff relays as fact are demonstrated to be false, Trump and his media allies will seize on them to discredit not only Wolff’s book, but any number of subsequent reports, no matter how deeply and accurately sourced, that reflect negatively on the administration. If that happens, the entire endeavor, and all the access he gained, will not have been worth it, except, of course, for Michael Wolff.

To this point, however, nothing has been concretely disproven save a questionable account that portrays Trump as being ignorant of John Boehner’s existence. Wolff claims he has recordings and notes of his interviews, and that he is “comfortable in every way” with everything he’s reported. He may not have arrived at some substantively different truth than traditional reporters, but he got there with a brazen approach and wrote with a take-no-prisoners pizzaz that is already having a real impact.

Wolff, with his checkered past, inflated ego, and sneering condescension of other reporters may not win any popularity contests among his colleagues, but he played his hand well and is now reaping the rewards. “Every era gets the Boswell it deserves,” CJR Editor and Publisher Kyle Pope tweeted Friday morning. “Obama—analytical, thoughtful, reflective—got [David] Remnick. We get Michael Wolff.”

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Nausicaa Renner and Pete Vernon are the authors of this article. Renner is the digital editor for Columbia Journalism Review. She tweets at @nausjcaa. Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.