Michael Wolff’s book has become the acid test for whether people believe in the truth or are simply interested in taking down President Donald Trump at whatever cost. And it has now proven that the same nihilistic attitude toward facts that infected Trump’s 2016 campaign and presidency has spread to its most dug-in opponents.
It shouldn’t be this way.
In any other political climate, a book like Wolff’s that is rife with inexplicably basic factual mistakes and gossip-section-quality reportage would be dismissed out of hand. The fact that he has clearly gotten so many things wrong would set off alarm bells and render everything else in it too suspect for public consumption.
But Wolff was smart enough to write the book that a large segment of the American public and the political press were begging for. His real trick was applying his notoriously relaxed journalistic standards and self-assigned artistic license to the same topic White House reporters have been doggedly and much more carefully pursuing for months. He took the things those reporters have heard as rumors and were ostensibly unable to confirm and put them forward as fact.
For this, plenty have argued that he should be celebrated — warts and all. Who cares if it’s totally accurate, the refrain goes, because it’s telling an important story with hugely dire implications.
Here’s GQ’s Drew Magary a few days ago, summarizing the case for Wolff’s book in the aptly titled “Michael Wolff Did What Every Other White House Reporter Is Too Cowardly to Do.”
“He did not engage in some endless b— 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.”
The basic argument put forward by Magary and many others is that too many reporters are too deferential to the White House — that Trump has forfeited the right to circumspect media coverage. When Trump does something controversial and extreme, it must be put forward as the work of an unhinged president. When he says something untrue, it must be put forward as a deliberate lie. Basically, there should be no benefit of the doubt anymore — no alternate explanations beside the ones that partisans and ideologues in their armchairs have settled upon. They see the truth with their own eyes, so why can’t reporters just acknowledge it and join the fight?
But that’s just not how it works. Reporters need to know that the things they are publishing about Trump are true, because when they turn out not to be, they forfeit the trust of their readers and further alienate their skeptics, who already think we’re constantly peddling fake news. There’s access journalism being practiced by some, of course, but there is also rigorous journalism that requires careful consideration of the facts as they are known. That filter may not be on a setting that everyone likes, but the arguments for Wolff’s book often verge on saying that such filters are no longer necessary. Wolff, after all, sure doesn’t seem to have much of one.
This tweet from The New York Times’ Nick Confessore said it better than I could.
Confessore tweeted: “Who cares if the Wolff book is factually accurate, you toadying journos who never call out Trump on his lies?”
Wolff’s saving grace is that the White House appeared to give him a ridiculously stupid amount of access. When you combine that with existing reporting (you know, the same reporting that is suddenly the subject of so much derision), it makes the stories in his book seem, at the very least, plausible. The juiciest tidbits are almost universally difficult to totally dismiss or disprove. And they fit lots and lots of people’s preconceived notions about the truth of what’s going on at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
But given the sheer volume of sloppy mistakes we know about in Wolff’s book, it’s difficult to take anything in it at face value. If Wolff can’t nail down basic facts before publishing, why should we have any faith that he’s nailed down the accuracy of major events described within? Just because the book rings true for half of the country doesn’t mean it is true.
True enough should not be good enough.
Aaron Blake writes for the Washington Post’s The Fix blog.
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