As an industry rots, Michael Wolff laughs his way to the bank

January 10, 2018
Photo by Justin E. Ray.

A lot of journalists don’t like Michael Wolff. The Vanity Fair and Hollywood Reporter columnist currently holds the top position in all the best-seller lists for his sensational new book, Fire And Fury: Inside the Trump White House.

In reviews and essays, numerous professional journalists and critics have excoriated the book. And there’s a lot to critique. For example: Wolff’s clearly beholden to his sourcesone senses a clear obsequiousness in his favoritism towards Trump Advisor Steve Bannon and aide Katie Walsh. Being the good courtesan, Wolff apparently shelved his skepticism in favor of stenography when offered juicy tidbits of unverified gossip. Conversely, those who refused him access and interviews suffer by comparison. Many of his critics correctly point out that his book is peppered with errors of fact (as well as simple copy-editing mistakes), and that his reporting, in general, tries to mask tabloid sensationalism behind a façade of professional journalistic standards.

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But all this was known about Wolff long before Fire and Fury was rushed out to exploit President Trump’s anger at its contents. One just has to read the profiles of Wolff published over the last two decades, or the snarky review of his Rupert Murdoch biography penned by David Carr in 2008, to get a sense of his reputation in the industry. Much of the opprobrium directed at Wolff is certainly earned.

But I suspect there’s another reason for the media animus directed at America’s top-selling author. Wolff has captured lightning in a bottle and is selling it fast. His publisher is shipping copies out as quickly as they can be printed. Early indications show that this newest sensation in political journalism might achieve sales numbers worthy of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Wolff is going to make millions, if not tens of millions, on this book, at precisely the time when ethical, professional, nuts-and-bolts political journalism is collapsing.

In other words: Part of what’s animating all the Wolff-hate is envy, and journalists should admit this. Some of this jealousy is rooted in the way journalists historically have prefered to see their work, as service to the public rather than as an opportunity for riches.

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The problem isn’t just Wolff. It’s that political journalism at every level is dying. Local newspapers are firing seasoned reporters, and the idea of dedicating a single, full-time employee to a city hall or a statehouse is now considered a luxury in many newsrooms. Journalism never paid as well as people think, and most of the journalists I know haven’t had raises in years. The entire culture of American journalism is suffering, as President Trump and his supporters attack a “media elite” that doesn’t actually exist anymore outside of a very few select people in New York City and Washington, DC. Everyone else in the business is barely scraping by.

This isn’t a new situation. Entry-level journalism jobs have always been notoriously underpaid. Every journalism memoir ever published contains (often humorous) stories about penurious wages earned in entry-level jobs.

A problem occasionally identified by media critics is that higher wages corrupts traditional journalism. “A good reporter used to make as much as a bartender or a police sergeant; he now makes as much as the average doctor or lawyer, and probably a great deal more,” H.L. Mencken complained in 1927. “His view of the world he lives in has thus changed. He is no longer a free-lance in human society, thumbing his nose at its dignitaries; he has got a secure lodgment in a definite stratum, and his wife, if he has one, maybe has social ambitions. The highest sordid aspiration that any reporter had, in my time, was to own two complete suits of clothes.”

As Jack Germond, the Baltimore Sun’s legendary political journalist, groused in 1999, the new generation of reporters “tend to drink white wine or beer rather than Irish whiskey, and they carry cell phones so they can talk to their offices more than the once or twice a day I considered adequate. They go out running early in the morning, and a lot of them eat salads from room service, believe it or not…Many of the men seem to view covering politics as just another assignment, a place to get your ticket punched on the way to becoming managing editor or something equally Rotarian.”

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That a journalist would aspire to middle (or upper) class comfort seemed, to legends like Mencken and Germond, a betrayal. Real journalists delight in chronicling the metropolitan struggle, fueled by nicotine and caffeine, as Jimmy Cannon once noted. “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” was how Chicago Evening Post columnist Finley Peter Dunne once described journalism’s primary calling. To exploit journalism ambitiouslyto plan reporting so as to make millions and facilitate social climbingwould seem a betrayal of classic journalistic values.

It’s precisely that betrayal that bothers so many journalists watching Wolff laugh his way to the bank.

On August 7, 1933, in the depths of the Depression, Heywood Broun published a landmark newspaper column articulating these exact issues. America’s newspaper publishers planned to legally classify journalists as “professional men” so as to avoid having to negotiate collectively with them (in accordance with the New Deal’s National Recovery Act). Broun knew this was just an attempt to pay reporters less than the unionized workers at the newspapers (such as printers or truck drivers), so he wrote an article calling for the establishment of new Newspaper Guild. It worked, and that same union exists today. In fact, in light of all the exploitation and salary issues existing in digital media, numerous new media startups have become unionized in the last few years. Even the Los Angeles Times, which has battled unions for over a century, is currently in the midst of a unionization drive. Just as occurred during the Depression, journalists are finally recognizing the reality of their exploitation. They are acting on the knowledge that their collective labor enriches others while their individual paychecks show little reflection of the actual value they produce for shareholders and owners.

These unionization drives illustrate the exploitative market for journalistic labor in today’s media universe. Media “content” is now regularly confused for professional journalism, and in the world of fake news and “alternative facts,” information and misinformation have become interchangeable industrial products. No wonder so many journalists are infuriated by watching Michael Wolff earning millions by producing much the same content that’s impoverishing their industry.

It appears that he’s spreading the disease while they’re looking for the cure.

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Michael J. Socolow , author of Six Minutes in Berlin, teaches journalism at the University of Maine. He is currently a Fulbright Scholar at the News & Media Research Centre at the University of Canberra in Australia.