"Fire and Fury" and the Struggle for Journalistic Integrity

 /  Feb. 25, 2018, 12:36 p.m.


It seems only fitting for a book offering one man’s perspective on the first nine months of the Trump administration to be met with a reception just as furious as the events documented in his account. By now, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury has been denigrated by media outlets across the political spectrum. While they may be right to largely dismiss Wolff’s work as journalism, the book is clearly an important cultural phenomenon. Fire and Fury requires its readers to pick sides and discern the truth for themselves, which is at odds with traditional journalistic aims and contributes to the increasing number of citizens who warily accept or refuse to accept the best journalistic practices as true. The book affirms public concerns about journalistic integrity by calling out media pundits for their self-interested reporting. Meanwhile, the reaction has devolved into finger-pointing, with capital-J-Journalists calling Wolff’s book objectively not journalism and Wolff responding by questioning their basis for dismissing his work.

The primary criticism of Fire and Fury’s legitimacy stems from the book’s questionable accuracy. Its chronological, narrative style often assigns explicit intent from remarks most journalists would not see as a strong enough basis for deducing an individual’s motives. Wolff even concedes he “settled on a version of events I believe to be true,” a disclaimer that begs for decimation by news media. While this criticism is well taken, many have used it as rationalization to ignore Wolff’s narrative. The New York Times refuses to factor any aspect of Wolff’s book into its infamous lists of unconventional actions President Trump has taken during his time in office.

This refusal to acknowledge Fire and Fury or at least discuss the specific perspective it brings to events predisposes the politically informed public to process Wolff’s account as fictionalized. But what if we give this one to Wolff, and set aside these concerns—what does the book actually say?

Undeniably it paints a picture of a White House ridden with nepotism, lack of organizational structure, and a constant battle for who actually functions as president. Generally, Wolff concludes that Steve Banon was the acting commander-in-chief during most of Trump’s first year in office. Wolff credits this disjointedness to the Trump campaign’s failure to consider the possibility Trump could win a general election. As much as Trump screamed to the public about his inability to lose, winning the White House was not the winning he referred to; for Trump, the extent to which his campaign lasted already made him a winner.

Wolff describes losing the White House as winning for the Trump campaign. “His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared would have transformed themselves from relatively obscure rich kids into international celebrities and brand ambassadors. Steve Bannon would become the de facto head of the Tea Party movement. Kellyanne Conway would be a cable news star. Reince Priebus and Katie Walsh would get their Republican Party back. Melania Trump could return to inconspicuously lunching,” Wolff writes. Positing this as the Trump campaign’s mindset, Wolff frames the campaign’s inconceivable amateurism as mere side effects of their belief that none of it would matter. No reason to take the time to investigate possible conflicts of interest or run background checks on campaign staff members, because in a few months it would all be over. Why not compliment and communicate with the Russians—after this stint it will be back to business as usual.

The danger in accepting this as a conciliatory rationalization of the Trump campaign’s undiplomatic—even undemocratic—actions undermines other political candidates’ campaigns by validating public worries about electing career politicians with agendas filled with empty promises. Perhaps media figures hate Wolff’s conclusion because it also undermines their own work. Months of analysis, discussion, and pontification over presidential candidates creates a desire for their work to have meaning. Journalists tend to feel a responsibility to hold candidates accountable by keeping the public informed. In the case of Donald Trump, the media could attack him with facts about his recalcitrant behavior, but it did not hinder Trump’s election, despite their hopes. Dismissing a campaign as a whim or a business strategy infuriates journalists, political activists, and the public who see it as vital for presidential nominees to use their power to influence the political landscape responsibly and respectfully.

Generously conceding to the Trump administration the notion that it even established an organizational structure, Wolff describes this structure as deeply divided by contempt between Trump’s daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner (collectively referred to as Jarvanka) and Steve Bannon. Characterizing Kushner as a “Goldman Sachs Democrat,” Wolff describes a clear opposition in which Bannon detested any and every action taken by Jarvanka. Bannon hoped to rid the White House of the “children,” while Jarvanka hoped to cast Bannon in an unruly light so as to subdue his influence over the president. Other players enter and leave the narrative, but throughout the administration’s first nine months this competition spurred a constant tug and pull between disparate ideals for Trumpism.

Trump’s willingness to accept suggestions from both sides reveals his lack of any guiding political ideology. Wolff reinforces the point by discussing Trump’s captivation with the media. While the book refers to this obsession throughout, Wolff spends considerable time on the president’s relationship with MSNBC Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough and co-host Mika Brzezinski. Wolff refers to Morning Joe as “a ground-zero study in the way the media had over-invested in Trump.”

Wolff describes the relationship between Scarborough, Brzezinski, and Trump as at first mutually beneficial. Morning Joe ratings had decreased, and the show was facing the possibility of cancellation when Trump—a longtime Morning Joe follower—began calling in and speaking openly with the hosts. The show became the morning news commentary with seemingly direct access to Trump, always with insider information after Trump’s late night phone calls with people such as Scarborough. The friendliness quickly died after Morning Joe ratings recovered and Trump became angered by the hosts’ mockery. This prompted a legendary Twitter explosion in which Trump called Brzezinski “low I.Q. Crazy Mika” and claimed that she was “bleeding badly from a facelift” during a visit to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.

Wolff’s account depicts a once-close relationship between the Morning Joe co-hosts and Trump, created in order to enhance the show’s viewership. This calls into question Morning Joe’s integrity as a political commentary show advertised as asking questions to uncover the truth. Annoyance at Wolff for the manner in which he frames this relationship may be seen as justification for Brzezinski’s visible frustration at the book and Wolff. On February 1 Wolff made an appearance on Morning Joe. After the conversation turned to Fire and Fury’s insinuation of a relationship between UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and President Trump, Brzezinski kicked him off. Given the controversial topics discussed with past guests, the outburst seemed driven by deeper tensions than those brought up by the Haley conversation.

The book’s analysis of Bannon’s White House influence now serves predominantly as a case study for Trump’s impressionable personality and as a reference to guide future organizational structure construction. With Bannon’s removal from an official capacity in the Trump administration, Wolff has suggested Bannon’s increased interest in public speaking indicates that he might begin to seriously consider a 2020 presidential run. However, Bannon’s recent falling out with Trump and the greater majority of Republican leadership make this an unlikely reality.

Fire and Fury seeks to enlighten the public about the previously taboo political etiquette the Trump administration readily embraces. Wolff’s internal access to the White House gave him the opportunity to produce a work adhering to traditional ethical journalistic standards, yet he chose to depart from this standard and produce a politically charged work aimed to capture attention. This style does not mean that the book deserves complete dismissal as a historical record, but it does require careful analysis before being used as a reference. Fire and Fury serves as yet another feature on an ever more conflicted media landscape, which continues to give the public disparate information and contributes to trends of decreasing trust in the media.

The image featured in this article is used under the Creative Commons license. The original can be found here.

Emma Dyer

Emma Dyer is a first-year Biology and Political Science major. Last summer she interned for Centro Desarollo Integral in Costa Rica as a support group leader and English teacher for women formerly or currently involved in prostitution. On campus Emma runs for the varsity Cross Country and Track teams. She enjoys photography and always starts the day with coffee and the Times.


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