Michael Wolff’s Fire & Fury: is this the future of journalism?
As corrupt politicians evolve, so also must journalism. It may be ugly, but perhaps it’s necessary.
Scrogue Emeritus Russ Wellen forwarded along Drew Magary’s recent GQ piece on Michael Wolff this morning, and it touched off a bit of reflection on how journalism adapts in the face of an evolving landscape of social, political and economic corruption. Magary says, in part:
Everyone around Donald Trump is too polite to Donald Trump. Democrats, foreign dignitaries, underlings… all of them. And the White House press is perhaps the worst offender. From the media pool playing along with Sarah Sanders during press conferences—conferences where Sanders openly lies and pisses on democracy—to access merchants like Maggie Haberman doling out Trump gossip like so many bread crumbs, too many reporters have been far too deferential to an administration that is brazenly racist, dysfunctional, and corrupt. And for what purpose? It’s clear to me that Haberman and the like aren’t saving up their chits for just the EXACT right time to bring this Administration down. No, the only end goal of their access is continued access, to preserve it indefinitely so that the copy spigot never gets shut off. They are abiding by traditional wink-wink understandings that have long existed between the government and the press covering it.
But Wolff didn’t do that. He did not engage in some endless bullshit access tango. No, Wolff actually USED his access, and extended zero courtesy to Trump on the process, and it’s going to pay off for him not just from a book sales standpoint, but from a real journalistic impact. I am utterly sick to death of hearing anonymous reports about people inside the White House “concerned” about the madman currently in charge of everything. These people don’t deserve the courtesy of discretion. They don’t deserve to dictate the terms of coverage to people. They deserve to be torched.
Magary’s take recalled a fascinating Facebook thread from last week, initiated by Tom Yulsman. Tom is Professor of Journalism in the College of Media, Communication and Information at the University of Colorado and director of the Center for Environmental Journalism. He’s also creator of the ImaGeo blog at Discover. So he might be fairly viewed as having an informed opinion on matters of journalism.
Yulsman kicked that discussion off with this:
From the first snippet I read from Michael Wolff’s blockbuster book about Trump, my bullshit detector was wailing at high decibels. The scenes he describes as if he was there — when he wasn’t — were what got me. And as it turns out, my bullshit detector wasn’t issuing a false alarm. He is known for making shit up. He recreates scenes from gossip, second and third-hand accounts, and fills in the gaps with his own imagination.
Since writing that on Facebook, Yulsman says he realizes Wolff did do a lot of his reporting in the White House. But based on Wolff’s past practices as a writer, he still doesn’t trust Wolff’s adherence to journalism’s first obligation: to tell the truth, not make stuff up. He cited this snippet from 2004 New Republic story as one of the reasons he distrusts Wolff so much:
Much to the annoyance of Wolff’s critics, the scenes in his columns aren’t recreated so much as created–springing from Wolff’s imagination rather than from actual knowledge of events. Even Wolff acknowledges that conventional reporting isn’t his bag. Rather, he absorbs the atmosphere and gossip swirling around him at cocktail parties, on the street, and especially during those long lunches at Michael’s . . . He also has a talent for making the most of even the briefest encounters. ‘His great gift is the appearance of intimate access,’ says an editor who has worked with Wolff. ‘He is adroit at making the reader think that he has spent hours and days with his subject, when in fact he may have spent no time at all’ … In contrast to The New Yorker‘s Ken Auletta, whose sympathetic portrayals of media moguls have allowed him to enter their inner sanctums, Wolff does not confer with the titans he covers. He channels them.”
“Did he ‘channel’ his White House sources too?” Yulsman asks. Wolff can prove that the answer is ‘no’ by publicly publishing all of the tapes he says he has to Soundcloud and then letting others see whether he has faithfully reported not just the broad strokes of what has been going on in Trump’s White House, but all of the details as well.
As to Wolff’s credibility, Yulsman and Magary are in complete agreement (although Magary was less civil about it, branding Wolff “a fart-sniffer whose credibility is often suspect and who represents the absolute worst of New York media-cocktail-circuit inbreeding”).
Taken together, these views set me to pondering whether, as unsavory as the prospect may be, Wolff represents a natural and necessary evolution in the history of journalism. My thinking goes like this:
“Objective Journalism,” which dominated the 20thy century, was built on the pursuit of verifiable facts and adhered to a strict code of ethics not entirely unlike those underpinning our system of justice. To wit, the ends do not justify the means. One plays by the rules because failing to do so is more damaging to the fabric of the society than the occasional scumbag getting away with it. It would be hard to argue that, up to a point, America didn’t benefit tremendously from this mode of reporting.
There came a moment, though, in the 1960s, when some journalists felt a need to step beyond the rigors of the objectivist credo. The New Journalism injected a healthy dose of subjectivism into its reporting, giving rise to work that often felt like fiction. Read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood for a landmark case, then feel free to explore most everything written by Tom Wolfe.
Hunter Thompson, though, was more oriented toward the political sphere, and he perceived that Objective Journalism had lost its ability to adequately do its job. Corrupt power brokers, he felt, had figured out how to manipulate the rules, and once that happened mainstream journalism became an enabler for those who’d loot and pillage the country. Nowhere is this ethos better stated than in his coda to Better Than Sex, where he reflects back on the career of his arch-nemesis, Richard Nixon, who had recently died.
Some people will say that words like “scum” and “rotten” are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.
Thompson wasn’t wrong, nor was he lacking historical context. Keith Olbermann’s brilliant response to an attack from Ted Koppel in 2010 invokes Murrow and Cronkite in making clear the role subjective insight had always played in the best “objective” reporting.
As the pillagers became more sophisticated, so also journalism needed to adapt, and Thompson’s “Gonzo” Journalism gave us perhaps the best political coverage in American history, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.
But the political and media landscape continue to evolve, and in this brave new world having one’s access terminated is, for any reporter or outlet, the equivalent of a death sentence. This is the dynamic Magary alludes to, and if we consider the role of journalism in pretty much any historical, ethical context, it’s clear access has to be a means. Now, though, access is the end itself, and the result is a legion of “reporters” who in truth are little more than stenographers to the rich, powerful and evil.
How does a journalist deal with this evolution in the ongoing public information dance? Let’s be clear – Hunter Thompson would never be allowed within a mile of the Trump White House. He’d have do whatever damage he could from afar, but no way could he ever have written Fire & Fury.
Wolff may be a weasel. He may have, from a traditional perspective, zero journalistic credibility. But he got in and he reported what he found. How?
He did it by sleazily ingratiating himself with the White House, gaining access, hosting weird private dinners, and then taking full advantage of the administration’s basic lack of knowledge about how reporting works. Some of the officials Wolff got on tape claim to be unaware that they were on the record. Wolff denies this, but he’s very much up front in the book’s intro about the fact that he was able to exploit the incredible “lack of experience” on display here. In other words, Wolff got his book by playing a bunch of naive dopes.
He fought fire with fire. Or perhaps “scum with scum” is a better way of putting it. As Magary intimates, perhaps, in this ugly time, Wolff is what the doctor ordered. Maybe, just maybe, he’s the new Thompson. Maybe, just maybe, he’s what journalism must be in an access-is-everything, post-factual political world.
This isn’t a pleasant thing to ponder. But the excerpts we’ve seen from Fire & Fury so far are 100% consistent with what we know to be true about the Trump White House.
How low can journalism go? Hard to say. How low will politics force it to go?