The Media Today

Michael Wolff is back

May 31, 2019

Early last year, Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury—a rollicking, fly-on-the-wall account of dysfunction in Trumpworld—devoured so much press anticipation, and picked up so many pre-sales, that its publisher released it four days ahead of schedule. Wolff’s next book, Siege: Trump Under Fire, is due out in four days, and the reception has so far been different: less buzzy, more reflective of factual errors and uncorroborated claims. More critics are raising questions about Wolff’s reliability as a narrator.

Some of the explosive claims Wolff makes in Siege—that Steve Bannon called the Trump Organization “a criminal enterprise”; that Rupert Murdoch called Trump “an asshole”; that Fox News let Brett Kavanaugh see questions ahead of an interview during his Supreme Court confirmation fight (Fox News calls this claim “pure fiction”)—have made headlines. Many reporters and critics covering the book, however, have expressed skepticism about its key claims. In particular, they are casting doubt on Wolff’s assertion, written about this week in The Guardian, that Robert Mueller, the special counsel, drew up a three-count indictment charging Trump with obstruction of justice—and then decided to shelve it. In the book, to back up that story, Wolff refers to leaked documents (The Guardian claims to have viewed them), but Peter Carr, Mueller’s spokesperson, has denied that any such evidence exists. In The New York Times, Mark Landler pointed out other possible inconsistencies in Wolff’s account of Mueller-related documents: aspects of their wording and legal basis contradict what we already know about Mueller’s inquiry. Andrew Weissmann, who, according to Wolff, led the supposed indictment team, wasn’t, in fact, involved in examining Trump’s possible obstruction. Erik Wemple, a media writer for The Washington Post, listed eight factors undercutting Wolff’s claim about Mueller and only one in support of it: Wolff’s assertion that his source is “impeccable.”

ICYMI: Who is Florida Man?

Wolff issued the defense of his source in an interview with Michael M. Grynbaum, of the Times. Grynbaum asked Wolff what efforts he had made to corroborate and fact-check his new book. Wolff said that he did not seek an interview with Trump—doing so would have been a “fool’s errand”—despite reporting a new allegation, by a former staffer on The Apprentice, of Trump’s sexual misconduct. The president “is not a man who is going to suddenly at this point of his life ‘fess up to being a sexual harasser,” Wolff said. Nor did Wolff ask Fox about the Kavanaugh interview claim. “I actually don’t believe, if you know the answer, it is necessary to go through the motions of getting an answer that you are absolutely certain of,” Wolff told Grynbaum. Several reporters reacted incredulously: Washingtonian’s Andrew Beaujon accused Wolff of “contempt for the absolute basics of journalism”; Ted Mann, a Wall Street Journal reporter, said failure to seek comment “would get you fired from a high school newspaper.”

Wolff told Grynbaum that his book went through fact-checking, but it’s not clear what that process entailed. The standards vary: as my colleague Alexandria Neason wrote early this year, non-fiction book publishers—unlike most major magazines—lack in-house fact-checking departments, and they don’t tend to insist that writers seek out checkers externally. Some authors do, but even then, the vetting can range from calling subjects and third-parties for confirmation and insight to reviewing an author’s notes without additional sourcing. As Neason points out, where errors in a magazine reflect on a masthead, errors in books dent only the author’s credibility, not the publisher’s. Wolff acknowledged as much in his interview with Grynbaum: “It’s a distinction between journalists who are institutionally wedded and those who are not,” he said. Readers, he added, will know Siege is only his account of the truth, not “put together by a committee.”

Discretion ultimately rests with readers. Ahead of its release last year, Fire and Fury topped Amazon’s best-seller charts. As of this morning, Siege pre-sales don’t make the top 100. At number one? Mueller’s report.

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Below, more on Michael Wolff and fact-checking:

  • Bannon’s canon: Siege relies heavily on Steve Bannon, who continued talking to Wolff even after Fire and Fury led to his ouster from the White House and Breitbart News. Wolff calls Bannon “the Virgil anyone might be lucky to have as a guide for a descent into Trumpworld.” In a review for the Post, however, Ryan Lizza notes, “It takes 193 pages, but we eventually learn that Bannon hasn’t talked to Trump since he was fired.” In a review for the Times, Jennifer Szalai writes that Siege reads like a “rhetorical gambit—a twisted bid to burnish Bannon’s anti-establishment legacy.”
  • Feeding frenzy: CNN’s Oliver Darcy asked several journalism experts how reporters should cover Siege. “Proceed with extreme caution!” the Post’s Wemple told him. Frank Sesno, of George Washington University, added: “Before the media feast on and amplify its claims, they should fact- and logic-check to determine what’s real, what’s credible, and what should—put charitably—be left on the cutting room floor.”
  • Wolf (one f): Neason’s piece on non-fiction fact-checking came after a number of errors were spotted in Merchants of Truth, the recent book by Jill Abramson, former editor of the Times, about the future of the news business. Last week, we saw another case for rigorous fact-checking: Naomi Wolf made a crucial error in her new book, Outrages, based on her misunderstanding of a legal term. A critic told Wolf of the mistake live on air during a BBC radio interview.

Other notable stories:

  • Trump reacted furiously to Mueller’s press conference. In a Twitter tirade yesterday, Trump appeared to have acknowledged, for the first time, that Russia helped him get elected. He later walked that back; CNN tallied at least 21 lies and falsehoods on Thursday morning alone. Quinta Jurecic, writing for The Atlantic, argues that the press has “not adequately grappled with the information conveyed in the Mueller report or presented it to the public with sufficient clarity.”
  • It’s one year to the day since the Pentagon last held an on-camera press briefing. Politico’s Michael Calderone reports that the drought has frustrated the Pentagon press corps, particularly given rising tensions with Iran: “The reason we push on-camera is we want people to publicly stand by their decisions to send other people’s children into harm’s way,” one reporter said. It’s not just journalists who are concerned: CJR’s Andrew McCormick spoke with former Defense Department officials worried that “the flagging relations between the DoD and the press damages the agency’s credibility and sows confusion in the public sphere.”
  • According to court documents shared by Politico, Mustafa al-Imam—a suspect in the attacks on US facilities in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012—attempted to subpoena David Kirkpatrick, a Times reporter who wrote about the attacks, as part of al-Imam’s ongoing trial. Last week, Kirkpatrick’s lawyers moved to quash the subpoena.
  • For CJR, Bob Norman asks, Who is Florida Man? “Florida Man was formalized as a news genre by a Twitter account founded in 2013 that now has nearly half a million followers. That account describes he, and sometimes she, as the ‘world’s worst superhero,’” Norman writes. “The stories tend to stand as exemplars of the mythical hyper-weirdness of the Sunshine State, but more often simply document the travails of the drug-addicted, mentally ill, and homeless.”
  • Gannett, which recently rebuffed the advances of Digital First Media, has held merger talks with GateHouse Media. Lukas I. Alpert and Cara Lombardo report, for the Journal, that such a deal “would bring together the nation’s two largest newspaper groups by circulation.” Gannett has also explored negotiations with Tribune and McClatchy, the Journal reports. For Nieman Lab, Ken Doctor writes that any move to consolidate would be “financially strategic,” but not necessarily good for journalism.
  • When it comes to information access, La Plata County, in southwest Colorado, is a so-called “orphan county,” meaning residents do not receive news relevant to their statewide politics. (Research shows that orphan counties have low turnout.) La Plata, to the anger of many residents, is grouped in the same market area as Albuquerque, New Mexico. For CJR, Corey Hutchins checks in on the protracted local fight to access programming from Denver, a plea now before the Federal Communications Commission. Yesterday, Hutchins spoke with Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, on our podcast, The Kicker.
  • The government of Sudan shut down Al-Jazeera’s office in Khartoum and revoked the work permits of staff. Officials did not give a reason, but the move comes amid escalating tensions in the country, where pro-democracy protesters are demanding that military leaders hand over power to a civilian-led administration. Last month, Omar Al Bashir, Sudan’s longtime leader, was forced from power; afterward, CJR’s Zainab Sultan spoke to journalists covering the country about the impact on the press.
  • The LA Times has been staffing up under owner Patrick Soon-Shiong. Prior to his arrival, however, the paper saw drastic cutbacks. For CJR, Cerianne Robertson asked 114 former staffers where they are now. “In broad strokes, this research shows that there is movement of journalists towards for-profit public relations work,” Robertson writes. “Many journalists transitioned to work that produces a different type of information, from journalism for nonprofit investigative outlets to PR content and industry analysis, and on to books, university lectures, nonprofit campaigns, and many more formats.”
  • And in Brazil, Robson Giorno, a local journalist in Rio de Janeiro state, was killed in a shooting outside his home. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, police believe Giorno was targeted because of his journalism or his stated intention to run for public office.

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Correction: A previous version of this post said Fire and Fury led to Steve Bannon’s ouster from Fox News. It should have said Breitbart News. The post has been updated.

Update: This post has been updated to include Fox News’s comment on Wolff’s claim that the network let Brett Kavanaugh see interview questions ahead of time.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.