Notionally True

Do the facts actually matter?

Here are two statements made—within five minutes of each other—by Michael Wolff, author of the bestselling Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Statement 1, on the impossibility of obtaining a clear account of anything due to the untrustworthy nature of his sources:

Everybody is lying in their own particular way because that’s what you do in the Trump White House… They would kill each other. You have these two sides who would be each other’s assassins if they could be. So, therefore, how do you get the truth out of one side telling you one thing, one side telling you the other?

Statement 2, in response to being asked how much of Wolff’s book a reader should believe, given that Wolff does not actually list any of the sources for its explosive factual allegations:

You should believe all of it… That’s the alarming thing, that this is all true.

In one breath, Wolff says that it’s impossible to know the truth about the Trump White House, since nearly every insider who speaks about it is offering a pack of self-serving lies. In the next breath, Wolff insists that you should believe every word of his account of Trump White House, even though it is constructed from interviews with said self-serving liars. How can anyone trust a man who thinks “it’s unreliable malicious gossip, but it’s definitely all true” is a coherent position to hold? Wolff’s own stance is virtually indistinguishable from Saturday Night Live‘s parody of it: “Even the stuff that’s not true? It’s true.” 

As has been exhaustively reported, Fire and Fury makes a number of astonishing claims about the president’s first year in the White House. The gist is that everyone around Trump is horrified by the fact that he is—shockingly—a petulant and impulsive man-child incapable of doing his job. The book is full of scrumptious gossipy tidbits, like Ivanka Trump making fun of her father’s hairdo and Donald Trump having three televisions in his bedroom and refusing to let the White House cleaning staff pick up his dirty shirts from the floor.

I have mixed reactions to Wolff’s book. On the one hand, I kind of love him: here’s a guy who is willing, as so few journalists are, to do exactly what political reporters should do but so often don’t: get up close to the source, schmooze your way into being granted as much access as possible, and then be willing to torch the whole thing. As Drew Magary noted, so many journalists treasure their access to the powerful, and as a result will never dish the real dirt on them for fear of being excluded from the inner circle. Wolff, like the late Michael Hastings, used access as a tool rather than an end in itself, and when the time came he was willing to burn his bridges. Wolff played all of Trump’s minions off against each other to screw over the president. And as a bonus, he even took out Steve Bannon, whose blabbing to Wolff ended up costing him his association with Breitbart! It’s quite an accomplishment.

On the other hand, I still don’t know how much credence to actually give to the story Wolff tells. And I think it’s obvious that many people are giving Fire and Fury a pass on the usual standards we might expect from journalism because they’d really like the story he tells to be true. It is, after all, the story that people who dislike Trump want to hear: everything in the White House is a catastrophe, the president is an illiterate buffoon, the staff run around like headless chickens muttering constant comments about what an idiot their boss is, and everyone is just generally stupid and hates each other. Anyone who already believed most of this prior to hearing it from Wolff should be careful, because this is precisely the sort of topic on which we’ll be susceptible to confirmation bias. We have lower standards for evidence that confirms our preexisting beliefs about Trump than we would have for something that challenged them. And we (by which I mean People Who Despise Donald Trump) certainly have lower standards for a book of gossip about Trump than we would have for such a book about, say, Barack Obama. If a journalist with a reputation for fabrication and exaggeration came along with a set of wild unsourced and unprovable claims about Obama, would his allegations have been reported with the same level of seriousness that Fire and Fury has been granted? Or would a fairly high threshold of evidence be demanded?

In fact, shortly after Fire and Fury’s release, we saw instantly just how eagerly people will lap up ridiculous but satisfying untruths about Trump. A Twitter user posted a parody “excerpt” from the book, which alleged that Trump demanded White House staffers tune his television to the “gorilla channel,” the President supposedly believing that there was an entire cable channel dedicated to gorillas. The hoax spread quickly and fooled a large number of people. The idea of Trump starting at his television and demanding more gorillas was just so enjoyable that it seemed a shame to ask whether it was true or not. What’s more, it seemed like the sort of thing that could be true, given the kind of person Donald Trump seems to be.

Worryingly, “it seems like it could be true so let’s treat it as if it is” seems to be the standard that many have been using to assess the claims made by Wolff’s book. Maggie Haberman of the New York Times said of Fire and Fury that “[e]ven if some things are inaccurate/flat-out false, there’s enough notionally accurate that people have difficulty knocking it down.” Her statement is worth looking at twice: even if the book contains flat-out falsehoods, enough of it is “notionally” accurate that it can’t be dismissed. I’ve never before heard the phrase “notionally accurate,” which Haberman repeated on CNN. “Notional,” I might remind you, can mean either “speculative,” “imaginary,” or “conceptual.” None of these is especially reassuring: it seems to amount to a restatement of the idea “it fits with my idea of what seems like it ought to be true,”  which is worryingly close to Stephen Colbert’s famous concept of “truthiness”: that which seems like it ought to be true even if it is not, in fact, true.

Indeed, reviews of Wolff’s book often struggle with this, often containing statements along the lines of “I have no idea whether it’s right and it seems slapdash and untrustworthy… but its ‘wider narrative’ is certainly correct.” Here, for example, is Ezra Klein:

It’s heavily based on a few sources… and riddled with typos and small but glaring factual errors… At the same time, the book, read as a whole, contains real insight into the inner workings of the Trump administration.

The question here, of course, is “How do we know it contains real insight if we don’t know what’s accurate?” Sometimes, as with the Guardian’s Peter Conrad, this paradox has driven reviewers to make flatly contradictory and incoherent statements:

“I consider it to be fiction,” Trump has said of Wolff’s book. So do I, though I don’t doubt its overall veracity: it is what Mailer and Capote once called a nonfiction novel, with Wolff as an omniscient narrator who imagines himself at meetings he only heard about from others, and writes as if he were privy to the mental calculations of his subjects.

It’s fiction but I don’t doubt its veracity? What the hell does that mean? Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was notorious for outright fabricating incidents that never happened, and is literature rather than journalism. It’s great when read as a novel, terrible when read as a guide to the actual 1959 Clutter family murders. If Fire and Fury is in the same camp, what we are dealing with is a piece of well-researched fanfiction, not something whose claims should be on the news. And indeed, some of what Fire and Fury contains has to be invented: it literally has reconstructed scenes that Wolff was not present at, with little details about when a person took a sip of his water and made a certain facial expression. It contains at least one conversation between Donald and Melania Trump that seems like it could only have occurred in private, raising the question of how on earth Wolff knows so much about it. And since nothing is sourced, all we can do is wonder.

As I read Fire and Fury, I felt the same way as many of these reviewers: “Well, this definitely seems plausible. I don’t have any reason to doubt it, it’s consistent with my impressions.” Then I caught myself: “What am I saying? That tells me nothing!” But there was another problem, too: plenty of allegations made by Wolff didn’t accord with my prior preconceptions. For example, one of the big revelations of Fire and Fury is that Donald Trump never thought he would be president, and was horrified when he actually won. Wolff compares the Trump campaign to the plot of The Producers, in which a play intended to be a flop actually turns out—disastrously—to be an unexpected hit. I find that story about Trump very hard to swallow, given everything I’ve read about him. Every megalomaniacal kid wants to grow up to be the President. You’re the most powerful man in the world! Why would Donald Trump not want the ultimate prize? And for Donald Trump to think himself incapable of winning would require a Donald Trump that acknowledges his own weaknesses—something I have never, ever seen happen. Wolff needs us to accept that Donald Trump realized he would make a bad president, which means accepting that Trump has a level of self-doubt that I would need to see a lot of evidence for before I believed in.

So if we evaluate the book by the “Does it seem true?” standard, what happens when it doesn’t seem true at all? The only thing we can do is make sure we trust that the person telling us has been diligent and careful in his work. Journalists are always going to be using their judgment to try to weave together the best possible account from a variety of sources, and if readers are going to allow journalists to convince them of wildly implausible things, we need to have reasonable confidence that those journalists are going to be straight with us.

Wolff does not inspire that confidence. Stephen Colbert asked Wolff why, since he had not sourced the statements in his book, he was unwilling to simply release the audiotapes of the interviews with his sources. Here was Wolff’s reply:

Because I’m not in the recording—I’m in the writing business…. I’m offering something different. I’m offering—and this was totally mystifying to people in the White House—I’m offering a book.

Is it necessary for me to point out how unsatisfying this is as an answer? He’s not going to release recordings because he’s a writer and books are on paper and audio recordings aren’t? What? He didn’t even cite confidentiality, which would have been a perfectly valid excuse. Instead, he gave the most evasive possible answer, an answer that strongly suggests a man who is hiding something.

Many others have pointed out that Fire and Fury is also a sloppy work, full of minor factual mistakes and typos. (Even Steve Bannon’s full name, Stephen, is misspelled as Steven, despite the fact that Bannon was apparently the book’s prime source.) The New Statesman’s Amol Rajan summarized the discrepancies found so far:

Wilbur Ross was commerce nominee, not labor secretary. Mike Berman, who worked for Walter Mondale, breakfasted at the Four Seasons – not Mark Berman of the Washington Post. Wolff claims Trump didn’t know who John Boehner was, long after the two had golfed together. He attributes reports of Trump’s alleged interest in prostitutes to CNN; in fact, it was BuzzFeed that published the relevant dossier. Dick Armey was never House speaker. Early on, Wolff quotes long chunks of a conversation between the late Roger Ailes of Fox News and Steve Bannon. It happened at a “Greenwich Village townhouse”. Why leave out that the house belonged to the author?

Some have insisted that this is nitpicking and quibbling (“Do not be distracted by those who are scouring the book for minor errors”). I actually agree with that somewhat, especially as I think most of it is the fault of the publisher rather than Wolff. Authors are not responsible for copy-editing, and little errors can be expected. (God knows we’ve had our share of typos in Current Affairs.) The bigger problem here is that it doesn’t look like anyone, Wolff or the publisher, has been particularly scrupulous with this thing before putting it out into the world.

That means, unfortunately, that the book is virtually worthless. As Isaac Chotiner of Slate explains well in his review, if you don’t know how to tell what’s true and what’s false in a work, then even if you’re pretty sure that a large amount of it is true, it’s still impossible to actually be confident that you’ve learned anything. If a journalist is unwilling to be transparent about their methods and sources, and seems to be both careless and gossipy, then even if there might conceivably be a great deal of useful information buried somewhere in their account, we as skeptical readers are forced to discard all of it. It’s a shame, because Wolff has done a vast amount of research, spent considerable time in the White House, and listened to a large number of insiders. But because he’s prone to saying things like “I built it out of people’s lies, but believe all of it” and “I can’t release the evidence because that wouldn’t be a book,” I’m not willing to go along with him when he makes bold new claims, whether they’re ones that do seem true (e.g. Donald Trump has the attention span of an insect) or the ones that are somewhat implausible (e.g. Ivanka Trump secretly makes fun of her father, which would require her to have a deeper and more multidimensional personality than I have ever seen evidence of.)

Truth is a precious thing, and in an Age of Lies it is more vulnerable than ever. Scott Adams of Dilbert fame has said that we now live in a world in which “fact don’t matter,” and that success depends on recognizing and embracing this. And certainly, there are those who believe we should fight fire with fire, and that Donald Trump is best countered by his own methods. If that’s what you believe, Michael Wolff is the perfect anti-Trump journalist, and it’s unsurprising that he’s been so completely embraced in a way that someone who applied the same methods to Obama wouldn’t have been. I continue to believe, however, that the only way to get yourself out of an Age of Lies is with an absolute scrupulous and impeccable devotion to telling the truth, whether or not it is satisfying or supports your preferred worldview. I think the media needs credibility if it is to be effective, and that credibility is something difficult to build up and easy to lose. If critical evaluations of Trump aren’t done carefully, they won’t be believable, and if it’s not believable it won’t be persuasive to anybody who isn’t already persuaded. Books like Fire and Fury will provide delicious schadenfreude to the #Resistance, but they’re hardly likely to persuade anybody who prefers to see a footnote or two before concluding that something is true. Statements like “it’s fiction, but I believe it” are not going to help restore the media’s damaged reputation. And it doesn’t matter whether something is “notionally” true, but whether it is actually true.

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