Back in college, I had the privilege to take some journalism courses and operate on a newspaper overseen by an old school newshound. A lot has changed in the world of journalism since then, and certainly since the time of my instructor. What I learned informs my perception of the media today: where it continues the legacy it was built upon, where it has deviated wildly from its mandated role in a free and civilized state, and perhaps most importantly, where it has stopped being fair and balanced in the wake of legislation signed into law by Ronald Reagan that allowed it to become skewed and bitterly partisan. I bring this up because this is part of the foundational separation between the political parties, between our collective ideologies, and between us as Americans that has given rise to the bitter hatred we see at all turns right now. For decades this has been brewing, moving the left farther to the left and the right farther to the right. From my point of view, I don’t see Republicans and Democrats anymore. I see fascists and socialists, and I’m having trouble telling the two apart. In the circus sideshow of “gotcha last,” our tribalism has created a rift characterized by xenophobia on the right and out of proportion levels of hypersensitivity on the left. The result of this led us to the events of this book, both documented and otherwise alleged.
Fire and Fury is Michael Wolff’s exposé of the insanity and incompetence leading up to the 2016 presidential election and the early months of the Trump administration. To those who support Trump, this book will be admonished and dismissed as “fake news.” For the rest, this will likely be taken as a credible account. So… which is it?
Wolff explains from the outset that he was invited on the inside, outgrew his welcome, and became something of an interloping fly on the wall that allowed him a front row seat for the most obnoxious show on earth. What he didn’t bear witness to himself was revealed to him in interviews with those who were there. These facts and personal accounts, described in narrative over the course of the months in question, allow for a greater perspective of what is sometimes difficult to digest in media soundbites and tweets. What I needed to know for myself is whether this book was the journalistic answer I was seeking to help better understand our turbulent times, or if this was just a quick money grab.
Turns out, the answer was a bit of both. I think Wolff’s intention is solid enough. He has a perspective truth he wishes to convey, but journalistic impartiality isn’t really part of that equation. In the end, we’re human, and we all have biases whether we like it or not. The known facts are still in here. Admittedly, there are some points of fact checking that need to be addressed, which for me is a larger problem that pervades the entire field of journalism. In the need for speed and quantity, quality has suffered. The same has happened here. If you know what to look for, or if you’re thorough enough, you can do your own fact checking on reliable sources (non-partisan) websites.
Given that, I want to talk about what I see as the biggest flaw in this book. In the world of journalism, there are two points of order that must be maintained. The first is fact. Facts must be proven an indisputable. People are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. To this end, the second point of order must be maintained: transparency. Facts have sources. Where facts are missing or in dispute, we say something is alleged, and whomever does the alleging becomes a cited source. Everything comes down to accountability. It’s not enough to know what happened. Who, what, where, when, why, how, how often, how many… all of the bases have to be covered.
If this sounds alien to you, it means you’ve been getting your news packaged by a partisan organization with an agenda. Welcome to the modern world. News packaging is not the same as news gathering. When someone puts themselves in the center of a story or becomes their own story outright, we call that gonzo journalism. This book doesn’t cross that line, but it comes really freaking close.
There are a number of conversations in this book that take place where the author is not present, and, for example, much of the time the plausible source is Steve Bannon. But even if Bannon could get inside the minds and emotions of someone like Jared Kushner or Ivanka Trump (again, for example), that’s still secondhand bias at best. Wolff doesn’t know what these two are thinking or feeling as they largely distanced themselves from him. Bannon can’t possibly know either. All that can be reported is what is verbalized and what can be visibly interpreted in body language. Unfounded guesswork at motivations and suspicions makes for great reading, but it’s hardly great journalism.
I’m embarrassed to say, but this book is a hot mess, more in common with Dan Brown than with credible journalism. And if you ignore the implausible, the typos, the incorrect grammar, the wrong word usage, and other bits of error that demand the attention of an entire editorial staff, you’ll get a pretty entertaining story out of it… much like a Dan Brown novel. The moment you see one hole, however, is the moment the entire work starts unraveling a bit at a time. That’s not to say that the overall thrust of the narrative isn’t true. It’s difficult to argue the known facts as they appear. All of the facts and most of the conjecture we have in play right now point to all of the asinine levels of incompetence and ego-stroking this book unveils. The problem is that this book comes across as an accusatory tell-all gossip rag instead of a well-researched tome of investigative journalism. That’s all I’m saying. If that doesn’t bother you, then decide which side of the partisan line you’re on, and you’ll know whether or not this book is for you. Or if you can keep an open mind (or think you can), then it’s a worthy enough read for the goal of gaining some kind of perspective that allows us to ask new and deeper questions. At the very least, it brings up the discussion we as a collective society need to be having right now as to how we move forward. The problem is that the presentation of this book plays into the political firestorm, regardless of what claims to the contrary Wolff has made. It’s not fake news, but some questions most definitely need answers.
In the age of newspapers, people had time to gather facts and truly investigate stories. Today’s news cycle means you go for headlines and sound bites that recycle and de-evolve ever 20 minutes or so. How the news is packaged is more important than the information in it. Retractions are rare and are more rarely noticed. Gossip no longer travels faster. It has no need when it has replaced the news. We no longer have the luxury of digesting larger, important stories such as this in an attempt to make sense of them. We simply react. Ultimately, then, a book such as this has its function as such as an opportunity for the people to slow down and examine what’s here. It doesn’t read like that’s the intent. It’s written sloppily, edited poorly, and narrated to be binged so as simply to get through it. It’s a natural side effect of our current news system and our current nonchalance. It’s not without merit, but it doesn’t live up to the potential by any stretch of imagination. Still, as I write this, we’ve already seen some of its ramifications, so perhaps while lacking the surgical skill of journalism, perhaps it’ll help speed along the hammer of justice on some level. Time will tell.
Regardless of where you stand on Trump, the important thing to realize in all of this is that he is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. We the People, as a collective, are our own worst enemies now. As the saying goes, we get the government we deserve.
Think about it.