MATTHEW RICKETSON & RODNEY TIFFEN. The chronicler we deserve?

Michael Wolff’s book owes a large debt to the ethically grounded work of the journalists he professes to disdain.

Johannes Gutenberg would be delighted. After a US election in which social media played a prominent and problematic role, and in the midst of a presidency marked by frequent Twitter storms, it was a fusty old media form — a book — that sparked the biggest news stories on the first anniversary of Donald Trump’s administration.

Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House became, in the words of its author, an “international political event.” Wolff is a smooth media performer versed in the arts of self-promotion, but in this case the claim is no exaggeration. The controversy set off by the book dominated the news cycle for weeks. It has already sold 1.7 million copies, and is being adapted for television.

The publicity was helped by none other than the book’s main character, who, in an unprecedented presidential move, announced he was going to sue for defamation and invasion of privacy. Undeterred, the publishers brought forward the release date by four days. All Trump had managed to do, said Wolff, “was call more attention to my book. He just shoots himself in the foot at every opportunity.” It was another case of Trump’s characteristic approach, “malevolence tempered by incompetence.”

During the blizzard of media interviews, Wolff asserted he had “got to a truth that no one else had gotten to.” Everyone around Trump, he said, believes “he’s a charlatan, a fool, an idiot and someone ultimately not capable of functioning in this job.” Fire and Fury’s conclusion is that “Trump is deeply unpredictable, irrational, at times bordering on incoherent, [and] self-obsessed in a disconcerting way.”

Drawing on around 200 interviews and access to the most senior officials in the administration, this is a searing portrait of a White House gripped by infighting and political and policy failures. At the book’s centre is an individual who is intellectually, emotionally and ethically unfit to be president. Many, mainly small points in Fire and Fury have been challenged on factual grounds, but the central narrative has essentially gone unchallenged, whether by Trump, his aides or a seemingly envious Washington press corps chafing at Wolff’s disdain for them.

Wolff is both wrong and right when he claims that he reached a truth no one else has. He is wrong because a key reason why Fire and Fury feels intuitively right is that hundreds of journalists and authors have painstakingly built a house of facts about Trump with which Wolff’s picture is in accord. Through the daily reporting and investigative journalism of the New York Times and the Washington Post, the searching analysis by the New Yorker, the probing television interviews on CNN and the books by Michael D’Antonio (The Truth about Trump), Joshua Green (Devil’s Bargain), David Cay Johnston (The Making of Donald Trump), and Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher (Trump Revealed), many of the most salient facts about the president and his administration are already known.

It is from the work of these and many others that we know about Trump’s background (more privileged than he professes), his business acumen (a lot thinner than his boasting would have us believe), his business dealings (at best roguish, at worst criminal), his attitudes towards women (a long history of misogyny and philandering), and his attitudes towards people from different backgrounds (a long history of racism and support of white supremacists). Fire and Fury surfed the wave of all this prodigious journalistic energy.

If Wolff is wrong to claim he’s the first to expose Trump, he is right to say that he articulated key features more forcefully and compellingly than others have. Here it is worth underscoring the impact on readers of material recounted in a narrative style. So much of the meticulous investigative reporting about Trump has been presented in the dry formality of news reporting and the necessarily careful phrasing of a piece vetted by a media outlet’s lawyers.

Wolff’s writing in no way resembles what Tom Wolfe called “the pale beige tone” of news reporting. His tone is by turns arch, snarky and deliciously gossipy. His “arsenic-laced prose,” as one critic calls it, may be whip-smart but it is not overly reflective, let alone self-reflective. His style is personal but never in the self-questioning way that Helen Garner, for instance, has made famous. The effect on readers is to feel that Wolff is a knowing but irreverent guide who has taken them inside the centre of events.

Among the most telling examples of ineptitude and chaos in Fire and Fury is the story of how Wolff gained access to the White House. When the book exploded into the public realm in January 2018, many people had the same thought as Wolff’s former editor at Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter: “The mystery is why the White House allowed him in the door.”

Part of the answer is that although Wolff, now sixty-four, might seem to many people to be an overnight sensation, he has had a long career in the New York media. As New York Times media writer Michael Grynbaum once observed, Wolff “has for years been a prime piranha in the Manhattan media pond.” Indeed, one friend of his says that he relishes conflict. “Everywhere I turned was someone who hated me,” Wolff is said to have commented, with a smile, after one party.

In the course of a colourful and controversial career, Wolff had already met Trump. He had made a cameo appearance in a pilot episode of a Trump-branded reality-TV project, Trump Town Girls, which involved beauty contestants selling real estate. Amazingly, though mercifully, the series never went to air.

In the first months of Trump’s presidency, Wolff made several sympathetic-sounding interventions. The day after Trump’s election victory, Hollywood Reporter had a story headlined “Michael Wolff: Trump Win Exposes Media’s Smug Failures.” He referred to the media as Trump’s opposition, a theme that was taken up by many in the administration. Then, around the time of the inauguration, he wrote an article for Newsweek titled “Why the Media Keeps Losing to Donald Trump.” He told CNN that “the New York Times front page looks like it’s 1938 in Germany every day,” and said the media was having “a nervous breakdown” covering Trump.

Illustrating again the force of Oscar Wilde’s dictum, “the flatterer is seldom interrupted,” one unctuous Wolff appearance on CNN in February 2017 elicited a phone call from the president complimenting him on his perceptiveness. Wolff told Trump he wanted to write a book; Trump told him to talk to his staff. In Wolff’s initial pitch, his working title was The Great Transition: The First Hundred Days of the Trump Administration, signalling a sympathetic counter to the slew of negative news in the “liberal” media. Trump’s staff were initially noncommittal, but in the chaos of the White House many of them apparently thought that cooperation with Wolff had been authorised.

This seems a classic case of journalistic bait and switch — or, in writer Janet Malcolm’s terms, seduction and betrayal. As Wolff told one interviewer, “I certainly said whatever was necessary to get the story.”

He would go to the West Wing lobby, he has recounted, but would often find that whomever he had an appointment to see would keep him waiting for long periods. Over time, sitting there waiting, he became almost a fixture. People would talk to him because he seemed “the most non-threatening person in the Trump universe.” There is some debate about the extent to which Wolff spoke to Trump himself, but given how many times Trump has been interviewed and how much access we all have to his mind via his compulsive tweeting, there probably was not an awful lot to be gained by yet more interviews.

There was, however, much to be gained from access to Trump’s aides, and it is their intensely unflattering view of Trump that is at the book’s core and is so revealing. Wolff has said this himself — that his aim was to represent how Trump was seen by those closest to him — and it is the singular focus on these close-up perspectives, as well as the sheer volume of negative testimony, that creates a narrative of such momentum.

Take, for instance, the night of the 2016 election. According to Wolff, almost everyone in the Trump team not only thought they would lose but were also cannily positioning themselves to cash in on the opportunities presented by the national exposure the campaign had provided for the Trump brand. The candidate himself, in a matter of hours, went from believing there was no way he could win to pale-faced shock at the prospect that he might (with Melania crying tears “not of joy”), and then on to blithe certainty that he would be a great president.

This episode might reveal a shocking level of cynicism and grandiosity, but it is no surprise. If Wolff’s account had showed Trump as a well-read policy wonk who posed as a populist simply to win votes, that would be a surprise. But by positioning the reader inside campaign headquarters at a crucial moment, Wolff’s account feels viscerally honest.

The other key to Wolff’s access was Steve Bannon, with whom he had many conversations, and whose views permeate the book. It was on Bannon, by then departed from the White House, that the wrath of Trump and his staff fell most heavily after the book’s publication.

But this raises a further question. Why did Bannon divulge so much to Wolff? According to Wolff, both Bannon and Roger Ailes, who had been head of Fox News for the previous twenty years, were guests at his home for dinner in early January 2017, and Wolff suspects that Ailes told Bannon that Wolff was someone he could trust. Indeed, it is clear that Wolff and Ailes had a good relationship at this time. “Ailes, accused of sexual harassment, was cashiered from Fox News in a move engineered by the liberal sons of conservative eighty-five-year-old Rupert Murdoch…” writes Wolff. “Ailes’s downfall was cause for much liberal celebration: the greatest conservative bugbear in modern politics had been felled by the new social norm.”

This is, to put it mildly, the kindest construction anyone could put on the forced departure of the disgraced Ailes. For a more realistic, and damningly documented perspective, read Gabriel Sherman’s biography of Ailes, The Loudest Voice in the Room, reviewed last year in Inside Story. But Wolff’s seeming regard for Ailes may well have made it easier for him to elicit observations from Bannon.

Ailes’s endorsement of Wolff is all the more amazing given the history of Wolff’s book about Rupert Murdoch, published in 2008. Wolff enjoyed unprecedented access to Murdoch and his immediate entourage, including fifty hours of interviews with Rupert himself. As an unabashed Wolff wrote later, he was invited to write a biography of Murdoch as “a weapon in [the internal News Corp] war against Ailes.” As such, he had to make “a devil’s bargain not to talk to Ailes.”

The Murdoch book’s acknowledgements suggest that Gary Ginsberg — a News Corp vice-president for corporate affairs, one-time aide to Bill Clinton and now an executive at Time Warner — recruited Wolff for the task. According to Wolff, Murdoch and those close to him were determined that his legacy would not be defined by Fox News. Wolff claims that Murdoch’s wife Wendi had turned the mogul almost into a “liberal” and that his four adult children were more or less liberal in their views. (Liberal is a word of infinite elasticity in Wolff’s usage, never further dissected or probed or qualified.)

Wolff argues that Murdoch’s acquisition of the Wall Street Journal was part of the attempt to define his legacy. If this is true, it failed spectacularly. A decade later, he is more closely tied than ever to Fox News, if not to the British phone-hacking scandals.

Whatever role Wolff’s book had in the war against Ailes, Ailes himself cannot have been displeased with it. Wolff repeatedly asserts that Ailes is the only person Murdoch is afraid of, and nearly every other reference to the former Fox News head is about his talent and successes.

As Ailes’s likely role shows, whatever Wolff believed at different times, and whatever his ethical standpoint and willingness to make “Faustian pacts,” a journalist’s relationship with sources involves two sides with two sets of interests. Did no one in the White House know Wolff was a “prime piranha in the Manhattan media pond”? After all, the president, a fellow New Yorker, has long been obsessed with the media and its portrayal of him (as Tina Brown recounts in the diaries of her years as editor of Vanity Fair between 1983 and 1992)?

The fact that Trump is notorious for not being a reader, according to Wolff — and also, earlier, to Trump’s ghostwriter on The Art of the Deal — may explain why he had not read Wolff’s biography of Murdoch. (Wolff later said he constantly feared that a phone call from Murdoch to Trump would end his access.) Perhaps the rest of the president’s staff were incurious about Wolff’s earlier works, too. Or perhaps the new administration was simply overwhelmed by the unexpected transition to government and didn’t pay Wolff any attention.

No doubt the ease of his access partly reflects an outstanding feature of the Trump White House: its lack of internal cohesion. And, as is so often the case in politics, internal conflicts lead to a surfeit of leaks. Despite their contempt for the ways of Washington politics, Trump staffers have engaged in its time-honoured, subterranean communication wars with unprecedented gusto.

Indeed, according to Wolff, it is the president himself who is the source of at least some leaks, albeit sometimes indirectly because of his habit of unburdening himself by phone, late at night, to a circle of business associates and confidants. Again, this is consistent with Trump’s history. Mark Singer did a classic tag-along profile of Trump for the New Yorker in 1997 that was updated during the 2016 election campaign and released as a short book. He drew attention to Trump’s bizarre habit of routinely telling him that what he was about to say was “off the record but you can use it,” which he then used to devastating effect in the profile:

Trump, by the way, is a skilled golfer. A source extremely close to him — by which I mean off the record but I can use it — told me that Claude Harmon, a former winner of the Masters tournament and for thirty-three years the club pro at Winged Foot, in Mamaroneck, New York, once described Donald as “the best weekend player” he’d ever seen.

Such blind egoism may have been funny in the nineties. But the stakes are so high now that there is a strong public-interest justification for Wolff’s bending the rules to get the story — though there is little evidence he gave such scruples much thought.

Wolff responds to the charge that he deceived White House officials and broke confidences either with outright denials or by arguing that the noble end justifies any slippery means. It is possible to take these ethical questions seriously but also argue that Wolff’s deception was justified because the story he had to tell about the occupant of the most powerful office in a global superpower was in the public interest. It’s also possible that the character of this extraordinary administration, and its breaking of so many precedents, means that the challenges of reporting on it may demand extraordinary strategies. On the other hand, many journalists who have revealed important stories about the Trump administration have done so without resorting to deception.

Kyle Pope, publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, said recently that each administration gets the chronicler it deserves. For the measured, reflective Barack Obama, it was New Yorker editor David Remnick; for the brash, nasty Trump, it is Michael Wolff. It’s a smart observation, though it vaults over the many less-heralded journalists whose work an authoritarian president would love to muzzle.

This article first appeared in Inside Story on 22 February 2018

Matthew Ricketson is professor of communication at Deakin University.

Rodney Tiffen is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney. His latest book, Disposable Leaders: Media and Leadership Coups from Menzies to Abbott, was published in 2017 by NewSouth.

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One Response to MATTHEW RICKETSON & RODNEY TIFFEN. The chronicler we deserve?

  1. David Arthur says:

    A very interesting piece as I reflect on PM Turnbull’s recent Washington brown nosing. Thank you Mr Ricketson and Tiffen.

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