After more than a week of virtually nonstop talk on cable TV and endless headlines about Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” book, it seems fair to ask: What do we really know to be true about President Donald J. Trump and his White House that we didn’t know before?
The answer is almost nothing, because we have an unreliable narrator writing about a pack of liars and manipulators, and you don’t know whom or what you can believe in the book.
“Fire and Fury” is a huge financial success. Its impact is indisputable. It certainly played a major role in getting Steve Bannon fired from the Breitbart News Network Tuesday. And that matters, given the role he played in trying to bring neo-Nazi and white nationalist voices into the media mainstream from his perch on the alt-right.
But Wolff’s methods are questionable and his explanations and defenses of them weak.
When MSNBC’s Katy Tur asked him why he wouldn’t release tapes of interviews he did to defend himself against charges of misquoting or making up he quotes, he said, “Because I’m not in the business you’re in. My evidence is the book. Read the book. … If it rings true, then it is true.”
Wolff certainly isn’t in the business of journalism with that statement. In fact, that statement is the opposite of one of the values sounded regularly in newsrooms that practice traditional journalism: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Let’s go back and check it out again to see if it really is true or just confirms what we want to believe.
I read the book, and to me it resembles some of the “New Journalism” of the 1960s, which I was in love with and emulated until I found out in the 1970s how often what was called “novelistic detail and powerful storytelling” was just plain hearsay and invention in the name of a hot read.
But the furor and confusion generated by Wolff’s book is part of a larger problem in journalism and society today: citizens not knowing where to find information they can trust. And at the one-year mark of Trump’s presidency, the problem is worse than ever despite exemplary work from some journalistic operations.
Democracy cannot function effectively if citizens lack a reliable flow of independent information they can trust. It is the deepest truth I know about the relationship between media and democracy. It is the truth I have tried to spend my professional life in service to.
Trump is surely responsible in large part for the crisis we now face in that regard. There is not an ounce of overstatement in saying that never in American history has an administration pumped so much disinformation and so many outright lies into the American information ecosystem. From the robotic answers from Sarah Huckabee Sanders during snarly press sessions to the Trump tweet machine that never seems to sleep until it hits “covfefe,” the flow of disinformation out of the White House is so staggering as to make total fact checking by any media organization impossible.
Worse, as a society, some Americans have come to accept as normal a White House that lies. A nation that wanted to believe George Washington could not tell a lie and that they could righteously refer to Abraham Lincoln as Honest Abe has elected someone whose surrogate, Kellyanne Conway, introduced the term “alternative facts” to defend his outrageous lie about the size of the crowd at his inauguration. The lying started on day one and has not stopped.
Nor is it just a matter of lying. This White House understands performance like no other since Bill Clinton’s or maybe even Ronald Reagan’s.
We had a great example of that Tuesday when Trump let the cameras in for almost an hour as he brought a bipartisan group of more than two dozen members of Congress to the White House to try to find agreement on the future of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program protecting young immigrants.
Sure, it was a staged performance meant in part to counteract the book. And if you listened closely, it sounded as if Trump didn’t actually know what a “clean bill” was even as he said he would be open to accepting one. (A clean bill on DACA would be only about DACA, not one also tied to giving Trump a border wall.)
But that’s not the way most viewers watch TV. We don’t listen that closely. We look at the images; it’s first and foremost a visual medium. And the Trump that American viewers saw live on all the cable news channels Tuesday didn’t look much like the childish, needy, easily distracted, mentally unstable president Wolff described in his book.
The result is that some viewers are left wondering what they should believe – their own eyes or the tabloid-like account of a writer who got access to Trump’s White House mainly through Bannon.
That’s the kind of confusion that questionable reporting like Wolff’s coupled with Trump’s penchant for performance and lies can generate.
So, as news consumers and citizens, what do we do to get the kind of information we need? I get asked that question repeatedly these days, and there is no one, easy piece of advice.
Long-term, I believe education is the answer. Teach media literacy in high school the way my generation was taught civics. Teach it at the university level, too. Make it a required course. I think it is that important to citizenship in our media-saturated nation and world. Media technology took an exponential leap the last two decades, and now we have to play catch-up and figure out how to use it rather than be used by those who control it.
But short term, the best single piece of advice I can give is to stick with legacy news organizations. I know that will sound self-serving because I work for such a platform at The Baltimore Sun. But I know the values that editors and reporters are socialized to at legacy news operations, and there are none higher in terms of aspiring to the ideals of objectivity and truth, as impossible as either is to ultimately achieve.
There is a reason The New York Times and The Washington Post have been racking up huge gains in digital subscriptions the last year. They have been bulwarks against the flood of disinformation and lies out of the White House, even as outfits such as Fox News bring confusion.
And that’s not a politically driven, liberal-conservative analysis. The Times came under fierce criticism from Hillary Clinton’s campaign during the 2016 election for some of its reporting on her. The way the paper withstood a campaign by Team Clinton to intimidate it was evidence of its commitment to down-the-middle journalism.
When it comes to TV news, the oldest legacy brands, CBS and NBC, are the most trustworthy. And the same goes for cable news with CNN.
As much as I like the BBC’s breadth of international news, CNN International is the gold standard to me. Like the best legacy newspapers, all the TV outlets I mentioned have strong digital sites, especially CNN.
On the other hand, I do not think CNN has a system of editorial fact-checking on par with major newspapers for investigative and enterprise reporting, which is why it has made some mistakes lately.
And do research within any site you visit, just as you would if you were checking out a college or a company you might work for.
Go to the ABOUT heading on the website and read it carefully – and critically. Try to see who owns it and what that person or corporation stands for.
Do a Google search and go beyond just the name of the news organization. Check out how many people the news organization actually has covering the news, You would be surprised how few newsroom employees some organizations that claim to cover a city, region or the nation and world actually have.Real journalism costs money.
Or type a question in your Google search like: Is NPR liberal or conservative? You might be surprised what you find.
And when it comes to politics, force yourself out of your silo. If you find yourself loving the prime-time flow of conversation on MSNBC weeknights, force yourself to watch a few minutes on video each week of Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham.
I know that might sound like a lot of work – especially that last part – just to figure out what channels to watch or websites to frequent.
But if you want facts and clarity instead of fire and fury, that’s the kind of effort it takes in these informationally troubled times.
Democracy’s a bear.