Is the Left’s Defense of “Fire and Fury” a “Fake But Accurate” Defense?

David Harsanyi at the Federalist has a piece about Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” that argues the book promotes the “fake but accurate” defense of the book’s view of the White House.

Harsanyi’s reaction to the book is similar to mine in many ways. Harsanyi calls the book “a mix of wishful falsehoods, compelling fictions, and a lot of stuff we already suspected about the White House.” Like me, he found it entertaining but unreliable, calling it “the kind of fun book I’ve been reading with high levels of skepticism for 20 years.” He notes (as I did in my review) some obvious errors in the book.

Harsanyi and I agree: there’s no defending Wolff’s book as solid journalism. There are simply too many errors in it to take any one story as gospel. Harsanyi then has this passage:

It’s true that Wolff had access to the White House, and surely many of the quotes he provides are accurate. Rather than strengthen his case, this should make everyone even more skeptical of his overall account. If Trump is so bad and the administration is so incompetent and the people in it are so nefarious, there is no need to be a fabulist.

Wolff could have spent the time running down every lead and rumor he writes about. He didn’t bother, because there are few riches to be mined in meticulous, time-consuming reporting. Much of the gossip he passes along has been known to reporters, themselves eager to run with Trump-critical stories. Yet many of these stories and interactions could not be substantiated.

I agree with Harsanyi that “surely many of the quotes [Wolff] provides are accurate.” While partisan hacks will argue that Wolff is making it all up, that’s obviously not the case. I further agree that Wolff failed to run down the various rumors he repeats. It’s not journalism. Wolff gets enough obviously wrong that you can’t rely on him for details. Moreover, Wolff doesn’t really draw conclusions about key events, preferring instead to repeat the participants’ contentions about those events. On these points, Harsanyi and I are in total agreement.

Where I part ways with him is his contention that the likely accuracy of many of Wolff’s quotes “should make everyone even more skeptical of his overall account.” His failure to run down those quotes should make people skeptical. The accuracy of his quotes should not.

Put it this way. If you could go into the Trump White House for a day and listen to the various participants give you their views of Trump and the other power players, that would be interesting. It wouldn’t mean that what they’re telling you is accurate. But it would be interesting nevertheless.

That’s how I feel about this book. It’s interesting. But I wouldn’t call it journalism.

I fully understand the concern about terming things “fake but accurate.” That’s always been a concern. And the main point is that, in order to know whether a contention is accurate, you have to have evidence that isn’t fake to support it. The fact that some fake evidence supports it does not mean it’s wrong, if solid evidence also supports it. But if there’s no solid evidence at all, there’s no basis to determine that it’s accurate.

In the end, as I said yesterday, my preference is to focus on the public Trump. There’s enough there to give you a pretty good picture of what the guy is like. Probably no President has ever shown the general public so much of what he is like in private.

Let me close with this. Imagine that there was an account in the Wolff book that said that, one day, Trump was addressing his staffers and, for a good minute, started oddly slurring his words. He sounded like he had cotton in his mouth at first, and by the end he was slurring so badly that when he mentioned the country’s name at the end, he said “United Statesh” with a very pronounced slur. Was it dentures? A mini-stroke? The anonymous source didn’t know.

Trump defenders would go ballistic. This is part of a coup! It’s clearly all made up!

Would I necessarily credit that story? Nah. But I don’t have to rely on an anonymous source, because we have this:

Or imagine that there was an account in the Wolff book that said the President was practicing a speech, and the word “entities” came up. Instead of reading the word properly, the anonymous source quoted Trump as saying: “And, by the way, into titties like right here in Detroit.” Imagine that, according to Wolff’s account, Trump showed absolutely no hint that he realized he had just shouted the word “titties” — while everyone watching had a difficult time keeping their composure.

Fake news! Made up! Except we don’t need an anonymous account. It happened.

So no: I’m not going to treat Wolff’s entertaining book as reliable journalism, and my view of Trump is little affected by it. There’s already plenty enough out there one can use to reach their own conclusions about Trump.

And in a way, it’s reassuring. Even if there is an illiterate and incompetent clown in the Oval Office, the results so far aren’t bad. They’re not great — ObamaCare is still around, and the debt continues to pile up — but they’re not bad. So far. If we can make it through three (or seven) more years of this without a disaster, it will show that our system can absorb almost anything.

So let not your hearts be troubled over Wolff’s book. Relax and enjoy it for what it’s worth.

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