I’m ankle deep into “Fire and Fury,” Michael Wolff’s loquacious and scuttlebut filled book on the early days of President Herr Trump’s reign.
It reads like “The Final Days” would have if Woodward and Bernstein had done acid nightly and not had Ben Bradlee looking over their shoulder demanding accuracy and stronger ethics.
It’s also riddled with typos, missing words, extra words and stuff like that. But that truly isn’t the biggest problem.
The biggest problem is the author himself. He doesn’t know what he wants to be. He writes authoritatively. In ways Woodward never has. But he doesn’t show his work. One of Woodward’s problems comes from his biggest strength: research. His stuff can get dry because he oversources and overcites things. He’ll repeat something two chapters later coming from a second source.
I’m comparing him to Woodward because, well, I’ve literally read damn near everything he’s written. I’ve read every Watergate story, all of his books (save one), and some of his other stuff. And Woodward is the gold standard with this stuff.
Wolff also doubles down on something that always makes me nervous about Woodward. The legendary newsman recreates a lot of scenes as if he were there. He often tells the reader that he does this only when he can verify everything he’s describing. So if Woodward writes about an event you and I attended, he’ll get information from you, then confirm everything with me, making sure everything is the same. Then he’ll talk to others who could verify the story. So when he’s writing about a meeting between two people, he’ll have a small detail in there about a stain on someone’s shirt during that moment between sources. Or that they fiddled with their tie. The benefit is that it makes the reader feel like they’re in the room. But Woodward surrounds these scenes with interviews, citations from documents and such. Wolff is basically scene to scene to scene.
However, in Wolff’s defense, he was given access as things happened. Woodward is recreating events he didn’t witness. But Woodward lets the reader know when he’s describing something he didn’t see himself. There seem to be times when Wolff isn’t telling the reader that.
And that makes me lose faith him him.
Does this mean his book is full of lies or fake news?
Absolutely not. Too much of it had already been corroborated. I’m sure some of this is Wolff taking liberties where better journalists wouldn’t. But it’s not about him making stuff up. It’s about him letting sources tell him things, him not verifying if enough, and still putting it in the book.
He warns readers of this in the authors note.
Woodward, Wolff clearly is not. But I have to wonder how great this book would be had Wolff had a Ben Bradlee at his side.