Michael Wolff, fabulist

Michael Wolff is the author of Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the scathing book that describes alleged dysfunction and infighting at the White House. He’s the guy to whom Steve Bannon apparently decided to spill his guts.

But is Wolff a reliable chronicler? Paul Farhi, the Washington Post’s liberal media reporter, doesn’t seem to think so. He writes:

A provocateur and media polemicist, Wolff has a penchant for stirring up an argument and pushing the facts as far as they’ll go, and sometimes further than they can tolerate, according to his critics. He has been accused of not just re-creating scenes in his books and columns, but of creating them wholesale.

Some of the White House sources Wolff quotes have denied making the statements he attributes to them. And John has shown that Wolff’s anecdote about Trump being unaware of who Boehner was last year is almost certainly a fable.

If Wolff has misquoted sources for his Trump book, or simply invented quotations, it isn’t the first time. According to Farhi:

[Wolff’s] reliability has been challenged before — over quotes, descriptions and general accounts he’s provided in his many newspaper and magazine columns and in several books. Wolff has even acknowledged that he can be unreliable: As he recounted in “Burn Rate” — his best-selling book about his time as an early Internet entrepreneur — Wolff kept his bankers at bay by fabricating a story about his father-in-law having open-heart surgery.

“How many fairly grievous lies had I told?” he wrote. “How many moral lapses had I committed? How many ethical breaches had I fallen into? . . . Like many another financial conniver, I was in a short-term mode.”

Farhi cites cases in which Wolff has been called a liar by those he claims to quote:

Wolff followed up “Burn Rate” by taking over the media column at New York magazine, where he almost immediately ran into trouble. Judith Regan, then a hotshot book editor who had been a classmate of Wolff’s at Vassar, vigorously disputed almost every paragraph of Wolff’s column about her. She said she hadn’t had a personal conversation with Wolff in 30 years. . . .

New Republic columnist Andrew Sullivan accused Wolff of putting words in his mouth when Wolff wrote in 2001 that Sullivan “believes that he is the most significant gay public intellectual in America today.” Sullivan said he never made any such claim.

In a 2004 cover story for the New Republic, Michelle Cottle wrote that Wolff had become the “It Boy” of New York media after winning two National Magazine Awards for his commentary. . .

But she added, “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.” An editor who worked with Wolff told Cottle, “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.”

I don’t doubt that the Trump White House was chaotic during at least part of the president’s first year. Think, for example, of all the top aides who came and went.

However, I don’t think we should take Wolff’s word for the magnitude of the chaos or for any of the specifics.

UPDATE: Anti-Trump forces sense danger to their cause arising from Wolff’s book, viewing it as a gift to their adversary, the president. The New Republic’s Alex Shephard says that Wolff’s work has always had a loose connection with the truth and that he has already “has been caught making very suspicious claims” in Fire and Fury.

Shephard warns that Wolff’s work relies on gossip to tell us what we already know about the administration and in the process Wolff’s apparent willingness to “say anything, whether or not it’s strictly true … only bolsters the Trump administration’s case that the fake news media is out to get him.”

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