By Sophie Smith
As many can relate, I spent a fair portion of my holidays visiting with bigoted relatives. Amidst talk of fake news, Hillary’s emails and squabbles about the tattoo I had forgotten to cover up. One evening our conversation reached the topic of Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.
“We can’t trust that book,” said my grandmother through a mouthful of pecan pie. “It’s just lies, all of it.”
To my horror I realized our opinions on the matter are almost… similar.
I do not discount every word of Fire and Fury. The insider’s account of the first year of Trump’s presidency describes the chaos he and his staff have brought to the office. Wolff has been a fly on the wall in the White House, amassing more than 200 interviews with high-ranking officials. His book reinforces our knowledge that a circus is running the country.
But there are problems with the book. In true Trump era fashion, it provides information that is often self-contradictory and questionable in its reliability. One example is an assertion that Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister of Britain, informed Trump that British spies may be surveilling the White House. Blair adamantly refuted the claim.
Other information, whether true or not, is more vitriol than hard-hitting journalism, like the section that says Steve Bannon called Ivanka Trump “dumb as a brick.” It’s unclear whether quotes like this were said on or off the record, a sign that not all information is hard fact but perhaps just interviewees’ opinions. Even if parts of the book are true, negligences like these lose Wolff all credibility. In Wolff’s defense, “Fire and Fury” begins with a foreword disclaiming that the book is not always consistent with reality. He says many accounts “are in conflict with one another,” writing that “looseness with the truth… [is] an elemental thread of the book.” At least he’s straightforward about it.
An important part of understanding Wolff’s writing is to understand his background. He has built his reputation on his notorious work as a gossip columnist during Bush’s presidency, working for USA Today and The Hollywood Reporter. As Jeet Heer, a senior editor for the New Republic, puts it, “Wolff’s approach to journalism is to hang around powerful people, absorb their chit chat, indiscriminately document what he overheard, and convey it in novelistic prose.” “Fire and Fury” is no exception. To obtain this chit chat Wolff weaseled his way into the White House through months of bootlicking, publicly criticizing other journalists for disparaging Trump. His ploy successfully earned him the administration’s trust.
The Society for Professional Journalists, a group that aims to encourage journalists to work with integrity, offers a Code of Ethics describing what constitutes ethical reporting. Unsurprisingly, Michael Wolff does not adhere to the guidelines. Part of the Code urges journalists to “avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information,” describing these means as a last resort. I doubt Wolff’s mission was serious enough to warrant the duplicitous airs he put on so publicly. He’s no Nellie Bly, who worked undercover to expose the horrifying conditions of a mental asylum — he’s a gossip columnist trying to make a buck off America’s inept president.
I don’t care so much about the lengths Woolf took to write his hit. The thing that troubles me is what the book’s success says about the state of the country. It’s gossip, suited more for USA Today than the top of New York Times’ bestseller list. Are we reading about the president of the United States or the Kardashians?
What’s more, the celebrity of Fire and Fury distracts from the disasters unfolding before us. US relations with Palestine are in jeopardy? Trump just disbanded the HIV/AIDS Advisory Council? Sorry, I didn’t know because I was too busy reading about the president’s McDonald’s habits (a topic I refuse to entertain anymore if only to save The Collegian money on its ink budget).
Journalism should be the pursuit of truth, not an author’s opinion or catty drivel. In a time when this profession is under attack, accurate and meaningful reporting is more important than ever. The last thing American journalism needs now is a publication that so perfectly justifies my grandmother’s opinion that the “fake news” is out to get our venerable leader.
But “Fire and Fury” is delicious in its allure. Read it if you must. Just don’t mistake it for journalism.