The salacious new tell-all about President Trump by author Michael Wolff, “Fire and Fury,” is being quoted and, by some, embraced, despite Wolff’s own admission in the book’s preface that a great deal of his information is probably not true.
It’s an amazing acknowledgment, but that’s where “journalism” is at in the Year of our Lord 2018.
Wolff’s main source and the reason for any access he had to the White House seems to have been Steve Bannon, the former Trump advisor who has since been dismissed.
Bannon’s visibility and influence among conservatives has long been exaggerated, and apparently hinged on his connection to the Breitbart website. The fact is, many, if not most, Trump voters didn’t really know who Bannon was until Trump hired him at the White House.
But the media has tried to create a narrative that Bannon is in some sort of influence war with Trump for the hearts and minds of Trump voters. Bannon may be a smart guy. But in reality, to Trump voters, Bannon is a non-entity, and “Trump v. Bannon” is not even a thing.
But back to Michael Wolff. In the prologue to his book, Wolff writes, according to various sources, “Many of the accounts of what has happened in the Trump White House are in conflict with one another; many, in Trumpian fashion, are boldly untrue. These conflicts, and that looseness with the truth, if not with reality itself, are an elemental thread of the book.”
He adds, “Sometimes, I have let the players offer their versions, in turn allowing the reader to judge them. In other instances I have, through a consistency in the accounts and through sources I have come to trust, settled on a version of events I believe to be true.”
Put another way, Wolff could have said, “This is one of the sloppiest, least verified books you will ever read.”
Another thing Wolff has acknowledged in recent interviews is that it is likely that not everyone he writes about from his first-hand encounters knew he was writing a book, and not everyone he quotes knew they were being interviewed.
On the “Today” show, Wolff admitted that, while at the White House, he wasn’t always upfront about his intentions, acknowledging, “I certainly said what was ever necessary to get the story.”
During that same appearance, Wolff said of a conversation with Trump, “Whether he realized it was an interview or not, I don’t know, but it certainly was not off the record.”
Is it any wonder that trust in the media is at its lowest ebb?
There are – or used to be – a handful of basic tenets when it comes to journalists conducting interviews, whether for a news story or a book. First and foremost is complete honesty, i.e., the reporter must identify himself or herself and make it clear that the conversation that is being requested is for publication.
There are three basic types of conversations between reporters and subjects – “on the record,” “off the record” and “on background.”
On the record means that everything said might be used in a story. Off the record means that nothing said will be published or broadcast. On background means that some or all of the information gathered by the reporter can be used, but it won’t be attributed to the source. (There is also something called “deep background” which generally means the information cannot be used for the particular story in question, but elements can be used to help the reporter follow up with other leads.)
Whatever category applies to any given interview, it’s incumbent on the reporter to make sure it is absolutely understood by the interviewee. Sometimes, especially with people who are not interviewed very often or perhaps with older people who seem to have difficulty hearing, for example, I’ll go so far as to repeat several times that a conversation is on the record, just to do everything possible to avoid a misunderstanding.
When I worked in politics and taught campaign schools, I warned candidates and other officials never to say anything, even off the record, that they would be embarrassed to see in print. Some reporters simply cannot be trusted.
Others make honest mistakes. It can be easy to have a long conversation, some of it on the record, some of it off the record, with the reporter later getting confused about which was which. My own system is not to even take notes when a conversation goes off the record, and to make doubly sure that everyone understands when an interview is back on the record.
Obviously, Michael Wolff completely ignored these basic principles of journalism, by his own admission. When he responds to a question about whether President Trump realized their conversation was an interview by replying, “I don’t know,” he acknowledges being duplicitous. His additional comment that “it certainly was not off the record” is entirely contradictory coming on the heels of admitting he did not know whether the president knew he was being interviewed.
Michael Wolff’s reporting tactics speak for themselves, and reflect on him. But media outlets that give veracity to the content of his book are even worse offenders than the author, whose unscrupulous methods are being rewarded with publicity and sales.
It is what passes for journalism today, and why the complaint about “fake news” keeps gaining traction.
Gary Abernathy is publisher and editor of the (Hillsboro, Ohio) Times-Gazette. Reach him at (937) 393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary This column also appeared in The Washington Post.