In 1974, The Washington Post brought home the most prestigious award in journalism—the president's head. Nixon's resignation was the result of two years of reporting, led by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who relied on a well placed anonymous source in the FBI to uncover the president's plot to break into and bug the Democratic Party headquarters. It's perhaps worth noting here that other media at the time sought to discredit the Post, breathlessly reporting Nixon's denials and falsely alleging inaccuracies in the Post's work.
Since the moment Nixon hopped aboard a helicopter on the White House lawn, the Woodward and Bernstein method has been the blueprint of serious investigative journalism, in which priestly journalists solemnly plod through leads with slow deliberation and steady rectitude, ever mindful to accord respect to our elected officials, lest you be branded a frivolous pest.
In the age of Trump it all suddenly seems so inadequate—if not pompous and silly.
Michael Wolff is a very different sort of creature than those young Post reporters. A bruiser and an unrepentant raconteur, Wolff has a long resume and has acquired both personal enemies and respectable detractors. He has great gifts for telling detail and for acquiring access: Wolff makes powerful people want to talk, and records their notable affectations as they hold court. He used that gift, plus the hard-wired dysfunction of the Trump's White House, to hang out on a couch in the West Wing for a year and create his new book Fire And Fury.
It is a once-in-a-generation book that redefines what political journalism can and should be. Wolff is the first notable political reporter to fully accept the premise that politics is, as the saying goes, showbusiness for ugly people—and to act accordingly. The results are both juicy and gravitational. Wolff's narrative is a delicious read, but it's also immediately become the dominant narrative about how Trump functions as president.
Wolff's book should be the founding document of a new school of political journalism. The unspoken premise is that such radical transparency is the only way to combat this brand of buffoonish demagogue, who's been buoyed by angry low-information voters looking for easy answers and the condemnation of their cultural enemies. The only way to battle a narcissistic demagogue who lacks a basic understanding of the rule of law—if not a total lack of engagement with reality—is to subject them to radical scrutiny using all available information and sources, fearlessly debasing them by cataloging their inadequacies.
Already, Wolff has gotten results by fracturing alliances with Trump's enablers. After Steve Bannon admitted the obvious—that lesser Trumps, and maybe even the big one, engaged in treason—he was forced out of his post at right-wing blog Breitbart.
Wolff's book is filled with rich, telling details and vivid storytelling that came from unprecedented access to a working White House. Satisfyingly, he finally explains heretofore seemingly senseless acts like the hiring of Anthony Scaramucci by thoroughly detailing the power dynamics and internal machinations that led to such odd outcomes.
The fact that Bannon was ousted for his comments lends the book a great deal of credibility. Perhaps even more important is the reaction from other media, who have made plain that the book is largely true, and also that they could have done it, too—if, that is, they were so unprincipled and uncouth.
That Fire and Fury makes the professional reporting class so uncomfortable—the New York Times credulously reported every limp Trumper denial in a contemptuous review that went so far as to quote a Women's Wear Daily article alleging Wolff been asked to leave an expensive restaurant—is the ultimate sign of its weightiness.
"His writing is comically bad," writes the New Yorker's Masha Gessen, in a sentence that goes on to include both a colon and a semicolon; the line itself could not better demonstrate her own brand of hyperliterate slop-tossing. She derides Wolff as a gossip and casually accuses him of "surreptitiously" recording his sources. She says that "Wolff's reporting is not reporting," which is an odd way of describing the act of observing events, talking to people directly involved in those events and then relaying the information gathered to readers. What, then, is reporting? Asking questions at a press conference and dutifully reporting the answers with a sly wink at others in the know?
It's the same brand of snitty, nose-north attack we saw waged on BuzzFeed after they published the Steele dossier: "We could have done it too, if we were the sort of people who did such things!"
The problem with any critique from Gessen, and any other member of the national chattering class, is that their own credibility was shot by the election of Donald Trump. Gessen's many apparently not "comically bad" essays about Trump failed to stop him. Gessen, playing pundit, went on the record before the election calling the allegations that Putin was trying to throw the election to Trump "a farce." Whoops.
Tellingly, one of the few people in this exclusive club of top-tier opiners who seems to fully appreciate what Wolff did and how he was able to do it is Mother Jones' Kevin Drum, who was one of the only "serious" journalists willing to write openly about Russian influence during the campaign.
Political journalism failed us horribly in the 2016 election. Poor news judgement and failure to confront the possibility of a Trump presidency led American media to utterly fail to vet Trump while pillorying Hillary about a private email server.
The credulity and decorum they show in the face of Trump's endless stream of lies and tantrums does not distinguish them. It indicts them.
Wolff, much to his credit, seems to have anticipated this. His critique of the media that failed to reveal the essential nature of Trump up to now is paired with a keen understanding of why they failed to take him seriously, and why they've acted as they have since the election.
"Media is personal," Wolff writes. "It is a series of blood scores. The media in its often collective mind decides who is going to rise and who is going to fall, who lives and dies."
Though it goes unwritten, this dynamic, of course, helps explains the mania and existential doubt of political media who seemingly can't now kill Trump. They rage at him, in their demure way, and now at Wolff—who dared do what they could not.
Fire and Fury itself delves into the nature of learned failure, in the form of an extended discourse on David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, a favorite of Bannon which he invited other members of the incoming transition team to read. The Best and the Brightest reviews the failed war on Vietnam through the lens of all the top minds that designed and implemented it. In Wolff's telling, it's a guide to American institutions and the people who thrive inside them. The big takeaway from Bannon is that the "best" experts in politics, military and the sciences are often so caught up in their own paradigms that they become blind to certain realities that a detached and reasonable everyman can plainly see.
The parallels to contemporary political journalism are, as is so much in Fire and Fury, pointed and devastating.
Get the book from Amazon here.