Opinion | White House

Michael Wolff and the art of monetizing gossip

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As author Michael Wolff makes the rounds this month, it's worth looking back to February 2018, when Wolff's first gigantic hit book, "Fire and Fury," was the talk of the media world. And "world" is accurate: Wolff became an international sensation. During an interview on Australia's "Today" show, he was pressed toward the end on a claim he made that he was "absolutely sure" President Donald Trump was having an extramarital affair. "Do you owe the president and the first lady an apology?" asked the host. 

Just at that moment, Wolff claimed his earpiece stopped working. "I can't hear you," he said, after having an entire interview with no audio issues. "I'm not getting anything." And then he walked off the live interview.

Did his earpiece really stop working? Or did he just not want to answer the pointed question about a gossip claim he had raised surrounding his dishy Trump White House book? Was this just another of Wolff's claims that bordered on a falsehood?

Wolff's book in 2018 sold millions of copies, netting the writer, according to estimates, tens of millions of dollars. So it's no surprise he would continue churning out juicy, Trump-related books. But at what cost? Because it became clear fairly quickly that there were serious factual problems with the book. When pressed on some of these during media appearances, he delivered this line in one MSNBC interview: "If it makes sense to you, if it strikes a chord, if it rings true, it is true."

Needless to say, that sort of dismissiveness about the truth may fly when it comes to fiction, but not in what purports to be a nonfiction piece of literature. The fact-checks were thorough, with outlets like The Washington Post highlighting that it must not have been vetted at all. And then Wolff released his follow-up the next year, and there was at least some media skepticism to the claims presented.

Well, Wolff has a new book, this one about the end of the Trump presidency, and yet the old lessons of his past work clearly have not been internalized among the media. He got a glowing review in the New York Times. And, perhaps following in Wolff's footsteps of monetizing gossip, his is just one of a seemingly endless number of books about the final months of the Trump presidency.

It's worth stepping back and asking: What the hell was Trump thinking, sitting for interviews with any of these authors? And, yes, he even gave an interview to Wolff, after he saw the output from the first two books. But Trump's actual commentary is a small part of all these books. And while most of the books are serving up the kind of dish that the anti-Trump crowd is looking to eat up, many people in media and politics consider Wolff's as likely to be the most nonsense-filled.

I suppose no one should be surprised that the monetization of gossip, or outright lies, is on the rise in the Trump Era (or, now, the post-Trump Era). We saw it last year with Michael Cohen, one of Trump's closest confidantes, who wrote a dishy "tell-all" that got a ton of media attention, based around so many elements that are almost un-fact-checkable. 

And that's really the key element: In many of these books, there are undoubtedly kernels of truth. But then the kernels are stuffed with all sorts of information that feels true. Such books, in a way, are comparable to magazines like Star Magazine and InTouch Weekly. They are gossip rags for the political elite, the establishment media, the #Resistance Twitter crowd.

Of course there's a market for this. And some who are savvy in the ways of the media know there's less in the books based around truth than around feelings. There are stories in these books that center around what a certain person thought, or a person felt, or a person feared might happen. This isn't news, or truth - it's a therapy session.

There have been some criticisms of Wolff's new book, but they have been minimal. Isaac Chotiner of the New Yorker critiqued his prose style. And The Daily Beast fact-checked one particular story in the book alleging that Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer tipped off the Trump campaign before its Arizona voting-results call on Election Night, a claim that Fox News disputes and that evidence seems unquestionably to back up. But, no matter - Wolff has continued his media campaign, occasionally battling it out with interviewers, like he did on CNN's "Reliable Sources" over the weekend, providing no evidence for his dubious claims and, instead, trying to change the subject and go on the attack. In a way, he performed like the subject of his recent bestsellers.

He'll make bank again for passing off unverified and, in many ways, unverifiable, gossip as the truth of the Trump presidency's final days. The question, then, is not why Michael Wolff keeps getting his Trump books published. The question is why the broader media continues to take him even remotely seriously.

Steve Krakauer is the founder and editor of Fourth Watch, a media watchdog newsletter.
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