Meet the bright, snarky writer behind the book that infuriated Trump
Followed but not always trusted
Donald Trump and Michael Wolff deserve one another. They're like conjoined twins tied at the ego.
The political world and social media were convulsed — for several hours, at least, or light years in our Twitter-driven galaxy — by initial excerpts of Wolff's "Fire and Fury," including far-fetched claims of "treason" leveled by onetime Trump consigliore, Steve Bannon.
As Axios' Jonathan Swan noted, "The book's quotes and claims are so sensational that barely any attention has been paid to some eye-popping quotes that Wolff attributes to former deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh [in the New York Magazine excerpt he quoted her saying managing Trump is 'like trying to figure out what a child wants.'] Katie told me she never said those things; and when I told that to Wolff's spokeswoman she said he stands by his reporting."
Yes, pure Wolff. Provocative, discomfiting and a bit ambiguous. Engrossing, yes. But true? Even folks inclined to lap it up struck obvious cautionary notes, as CNN "New Day" co-host Alisyn Camerota did this morning: "We should mention that it sounds like Michael Wolff's modus operandi was to let the people he interviewed spin yarns. And then he didn't necessarily fact-check them. He didn't necessarily need two sources. This isn't really journalism. This is a very interesting read but in terms of the way he processed them, he admits in the author's note that he let people tell their own stories and he printed them."
Wolff has long been a pretty big fish in the New York City media pond, laboring most notably for New York and Vanity Fair (of late it's been mostly USA Today and The Guardian). He's way brighter than Trump — Josh Green, a Trump chronicler at Bloomberg, says what really angers Trump is the portrait of him as really stupid — but one who similarly cherishes the limelight and proximity to the rich and famous, even as he occasionally derided them with acidic and snarky prose (which some find wonderful).
Thus, there was Maria Shriver's "jaw planes, the cheekbone ridges. The porno-star hairdo." Maureen Dowd's alleged anger was explained by "her own women-who-love-too-much weakness." He chided Rupert Murdoch's personal life as out of control. And he did all with a style that some found mean but others alluring as he derided the same elites he loved chumming around with.
Michelle Cottle, now with The Atlantic, captured him in a 2003 New Republic profile (which she tells me she was hearing a lot about again yesterday), writing how "From the start, Wolff was adamant about being neither a media reporter (working the phones isn't really his style) nor a media critic ('that dour schoolmarm figure'). Instead, he put himself at the center of the story, giving readers a first-person glimpse of the inner workings of the media biz as it happened to, and all around, him."
"Uninterested in the working press, Wolff's special focus (fixation, even) has always been on the power players — the moguls — most of whom he has relentlessly and repeatedly skewered, scraping away the sheen of power and money to reveal the warts, flab, and psychic scars plaguing that rarefied breed of (in Wolff's view) super-wealthy narcissists who buy, run, and ruin media companies for the gratification of their insatiable egos."
As telling, she wrote, "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. Rather, he absorbs the atmosphere and gossip swirling around him at cocktail parties, on the street, and especially during those long lunches at (a then-hot restaurant) Michael's."
David Carr, the late New York Times media writer, noted back then how "Michael will say anything about anybody. He's fearless in a way that people attribute to sociopathology but that I always thought was a business strategy."
When it comes to Trump, Wolff has seen himself as chronicler of a timid, chagrined press unable to deal with a president who fights back.
"Certainly, the media, even the liberal-biased media, has with professional equanimity covered right-wing administrations before," he wrote in a piece for USA Today after Trump's election. "The vast economic transformation of the Reagan years were taken in relative media stride. If anything, the media went easy on George W. Bush during the Iraq war."
"No, it isn’t just politics that’s got the media in existential despair over Donald Trump. It’s attitude, it’s behavior, it’s language, it’s the rules of decorum, or the full-scale abandonment of those rules, that has left the media not only uncertain about its role, but quite thinking its role must be to defend propriety and resist whatever unfamiliar, louche, rude, and right-wing thing is to come."
When Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat and civil rights hero, announced he would not attend Trump's inauguration, Trump derided him, in the same ways he always respond to slights, as was the case with his anti-Bannon tirade Wednesday. New Yorker editor David Remnick, who had praised and defended Lewis, was chided by Wolff for "rushing to express horrified shock, if not total incomprehension" over Trump's response. Wolff belittled the magazine's approach to Trump, scoffing at a press unprepared for Trump's reflexive disrespect.
And now comes Wolff's book that, if initial excerpts are reflective of the entirety, prove the ample reason for "horrified shock, if not total incomprehension," over Trump's tenure. Of course, those who doubt Wolff's accuracy may now herald his empirical discernment. But Trump folks, as MSNBC's John Heilemann noted this morning on "Morning Joe," should not be surprised that he stuck a shiv in them, despite his previous criticism of anti-Trumpers and long-term relationship to Trump back in Manhattan.
Trump and Wolff. It takes one to know one. At first glance, Trump got the chronicler he deserves.
Breitbart News on Bannon-Trump
Well, if you looked in the hours after the great rhetorical conflagration, you got less Breitbart on Breitbart.com than you got that evil mainstream media. The most prominent stories were pretty straight, separate accounts of what Jake Tapper thought on CNN and what Chuck Todd thought on MSNBC. The wayward liberal media should ask Bannon & Co. for royalties.
Sean Hannity on Bannon-Trump
Not relying on Tapper or Todd here! It was all about the media being "addicted to hating Trump," craving its next "fix" of Trump tweets and "melting down" and calling him nuts (cut to video of CNN's Brian Stelter and Jeffrey Toobin, among others, doing just that). Well, there was some of Tapper, too, come to think of it. Oh, we somehow had 23-year-old video of Bill Clinton on a nuclear deal with North Korea and talk of the alleged Hillary Clinton-related Russian uranium conspiracy that's been debunked even by his colleague, Shepard Smith.
As for the Trump rejoinder to Bannon, Hannity finally got around to the briefest of references to that feud after more than 11 minutes of his opening rope-a-dope monologue (for ideology, they really could use editing). "They hate Bannon and they hate Trump ... but they love these intramural fights" (for some reason, Hannity kept looking to his right, as if ISIS recruits had just entered the studio).
He didn't say much other than when one works for the president, one must show loyalty to him and the country. That was it. He turned to two bastions of analytical neutrality, Sebastian Gorka and Mike Huckabee, to discuss "the media's Trump addiction."
Spotify going public
Cheddar spoke with Axios reporter-editor Dan Primack, who had an exclusive when Spotify decided to go public. Primack explained that Snap used a relatively unusual gambit called direct listing to do so, so the Spotify listing could be similar and won't be your average IPO.
Simple advice for media: Don't follow the U.S. Army
If looking for marketing counsel, media won't find much inspiration from the big-budget Pentagon. Says Adweek:
"The results of an internal audit of the U.S. Army’s budget question the effectiveness of the hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars the organization spends on marketing and advertising each year. Its conclusions call many of these programs 'ineffective,' claiming that the majority do not justify the costs."
Documents indicated that "The document goes on to claim that the AMRG (the Army's marketing and advertising program) spent more than $930.7 million from 2013 to 2016 'on marketing efforts that potentially didn’t provide best value to support Army recruiting,' noting that 20 different programs costing a collective $36.8 million in 2016 alone 'didn’t demonstrate a positive return.' The summary continues, 'For [fiscal years 2018-2023], AMRG would continue to use about $220 million for the same ineffective marketing programs.' "
A different criminal justice story
From the terrific New Food Economy, which has joined with The Atlantic for this saga: "Lapses in food safety have made U.S. prisoners six times more likely to get a food-borne illness than the general population."
Prison food safety has been touched upon before, including by the Marshall Project, the criminal justice operation overseen by Bill Keller, the former executive editor of The New York Times. This opus informs, "New evidence suggests that the situation is worse than previously thought, and not just because prison food isn’t winning any James Beard awards. It’s also making inmates sick."
Morning Babel (Bannon "excommunication" edition")
Chris Cuomo argued on CNN's "New Day" that Bannon is trying to have it both ways, claiming to support the president but outing Donald Jr. The Daily Beast's John Avlon discerned a "circular firing squad turning on itself." It was part and parcel of the counter-Fox narrative about "a seedy soap opera," as analyst David Gregory put it.
On MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Joe Scarborough segued back to the Russia investigation and what he deems the "pathetic attempt to attack the men and women of the FBI" by Team Trump. Oh, no surprise, he gets mentioned in the Michael Wolff book:
"On the Sunday after the immigration order was issued, Joe Scarborough and his Morning Joe co-host, Mika Brzezinski, arrived for lunch at the White House. Trump proudly showed them into the Oval Office. 'So how do you think the first week has gone?' he asked the couple, in a buoyant mood, seeking flattery. When Scarborough ventured his opinion that the immigration order might have been handled better, Trump turned defensive and derisive, plunging into a long monologue about how well things had gone. 'I could have invited Hannity!' he told Scarborough."
Will the next revolution be tweeted, not televised?
The Iranian protests have clearly employed social media. But is it just too facile to see social media as liberating technology? The answer is an obvious yes, with New York University expert Joshua Tucker explaining in a U.S. News & World Report story the state of current research on the link between social media and protests. There's no small amount of ambiguity.
Facebook and the Palestinians
The Intercept's Glenn Greenwald reports, "Facebook has been on a censorship rampage against Palestinian activists who protest the decades-long, illegal Israeli occupation, all directed and determined by Israeli officials. Indeed, Israeli officials have been publicly boasting about how obedient Facebook is when it comes to Israeli censorship orders."
Hoda Kotb's salary
There are lots of fat numbers thrown around for what the new co-host of "Today" earns and what Matt Lauer had been earning. Some suggest at least three-fold difference, with Kotb somewhere in the $7 million a year range. But Variety's Brian Steinberg explains the obvious realities of why that's true but why it may well not stay true.
"While the optics of the financial arrangement have spurred a very worthwhile and necessary discussion about compensation parity among men and women in the media business, the simple fact is that Kotb is being treated much like almost any other anchor or host who takes over a coveted and long-held post on a venerable TV program. TV networks often see opportunity in such transitions, because it typically means a cutback in salary outlay."
And, finally, there's Jim Risen
It would be nice if the Washington press might spend a few minutes putting aside the Michael Wolff excerpts and instead read Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times reporter James Risen's understated cri de coeur in The Intercept, "The Biggest Secret: My Life as a New York Times Reporter in the Shadow of the War on Terror."
It's a remarkable account of his successes but mostly his struggles with both two different White House administrations and his own paper's editors. It's a primer on the importance, delicacy and perils of the most serious national security reporting and how easy it is for government to squelch reporting. It is, too, an admission of his own occasional stridency when it came to trying to get stories published and fighting his own superiors. It's really long but contains two key thoughts near the end:
"I believe my willingness to fight the government for seven years may make prosecutors less eager to force other reporters to testify about their sources. At the same time, the Obama administration used my case to destroy the legal underpinnings of the reporter’s privilege in the 4th Circuit, which means that if the government does decide to go after more reporters, those reporters will have fewer legal protections in Virginia and Maryland, home to the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA, and thus the jurisdiction where many national security leak investigations will be conducted. That will make it easier for Donald Trump and the presidents who come after him to conduct an even more draconian assault on press freedom in the United States."
"The battles over national security reporting in the years after 9/11 have yielded mixed results. In my view, the mainstream media has missed some key lessons from the debacle over WMD reporting before the war in Iraq. Times reporter Judy Miller became an easy scapegoat, perhaps because she was a woman in the male-dominated field of national security reporting. Focusing on her made it easier for everyone to forget how widespread the flawed pre-war reporting really was at almost every major media outlet. 'They wanted a convenient target, someone to blame,' Miller told me recently. The anti-female bias 'was part of it.' She notes that one chapter in her 2015 memoir, 'The Story: A Reporter’s Journey,' is titled 'Scapegoat.'"
This is all alternately inspiring and discouraging. But no Washington reporting in the past decade was as important as what Risen (who took a buyout and exited the paper discouraged), and a few others, sought to do. In an age where being provocative and "interesting" can be a media priority and bring fame, this is a profile of important but potentially perilous and admirable heavy lifting. It's what journalism is really about. Check it out.
CORRECTION: The original item on Cheddar misstated the identity of an IPO disclosed by Axios. It involves Spotify, not Snap, as the link to the original Cheddar story makes clear.