The People v. Michael Wolff: On the Matter of Journalistic Malpractice
Guest post by: Matthew Oakley
Little can be said about Michael Wolff’s book, Fire & Fury: Inside the Trump White House, that hasn’t already been on the pages of numerous periodicals and websites. It is, at its core, a hack job by a writer better equipped to cover the Kardashians than the White House. Aside from this however, and perhaps even in the face of it, the book has seen tremendous success–debuting on many best seller lists, and has at the very least increased sales for the decade old, similarly titled, Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany, 1942-1945 by Randall Hansen.
One is forced to realize though that the appeal of the book has little to do with its content, and quite a bit more to do with the fact that many of us want it to be true, or could at least see it being so. It is quite sobering to be told that the President needed the Constitution explained to him at any point–pre or post election–and the fact that it isn’t true matters little, as the thought now hangs in our minds due to its believability. Other shortcomings (though they have far more of a sinister basis than that word implies) include misquotations, the publishing of off the record material, misspellings, incorrect dates, misremembered names,and for the more sensitive reader–the prose itself.
It is perhaps because of these inaccuracies, fabrications, and pitfalls that a recent op-ed in The Atlantic championed Fire and Fury as a “Perfectly Postmodern White House Book”. This statement becomes beyond fatuous when the reader realizes that instead of being whisked away into the prose of a genius like Margaret Atwood, they are being led down the primrose path by a writer who has as tenuous of a relation to the truth as Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. The only difference in Wolff being that he openly admits to these artistic renderings as if they were a badge of honor.
Postmodern interpretations aside, this book should be taken for what it is–namely, the most successful piece of journalistic malpractice since 1981, when Janet Cooke won the Pulitzer Prize for a made up story about an 8 year old heroin addict. Sadly, the business of fabrication has become far more common in journalism than many would care to admit, but rarely do these cases venture into the territory of illegality.
Working from the same assumption as The Society of Professional Journalists–that “…ethical journalism is vital to the public and the health of the nation’s democracy”–it is easy to understand why the Supreme Court ruled that “freedom of press, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion are in a preferred position” (Murdoch v. Pennsylvania), but we must wonder if some of these protections are too broad at times. The role of the press in a democracy is nearly unparalleled (one is forced to think of Edmund Burke aptly deeming it to be The Fourth Estate of government), but the significance and power of the medium cannot be allowed to become undermined by subversive demagogues with dollar signs in their eyes.
In the case United States v. Associated Press it was determined that “The constitutional guarantees require … a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with ‘actual malice’ – that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” Because these standards thrust such a vague criteria (i.e. malice) on the defendant it is rare that these cases are litigated. In turn, several states have adopted a negligence standard akin to the ones that hold doctors responsible for malpractice.
A trend of false narratives have plagued the news for many years, but the line on the graph has gone nearly straight up in recent years–making Michael Wolff only a symptom of a greater problem. Like all modes of authority, journalism must be questioned from time to time so as not to allow it to become part of the machine it strives to defend us from. Dissent from popular opinion is what gave the world valiant voices like Murrow, Buckley, and Hitchens. If the law does not provide sufficient protection to the offended individual in cases of journalistic libel, then these cases must be tried in the court of public opinion–a favorite kangaroo of the modern age.
Perhaps in all of this there is a case to be made for the idea that postmodernism, and all its byproducts, have begun to run amok–but allowing one of the most important professions to be corrupted by artistic interpretation has far reaching implications that don’t bode particularly well for the state or the future of public discourse. A call to arms is necessary, and while single party politics are no friend to a democracy, bipartisan support of such a cause is not only necessary, but required.
The same platitudes found within the pages of Fire & Fury have been found in loads of other far more reputable outlets, and one would do well to seek them out. Literary and journalistic criticism is a moral imperative we all must participate in–so at the very least for the sake of good taste, try and do so.
About the Author: Matthew Oakley is a podcaster and writer whose articles have been featured at a number of websites and publications including The Gralien Report and Intrepid Magazine, in addition to regional publications in Western North Carolina. He is fiercely opinionated, and is outspoken with his writing regarding politics, skepticism, and science. Equipped with a true contrarian mindset, there are few topics out of his reach. Mr. Oakley can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Matt on Twitter: @GralienReverend.