While normal people can just gobble up the gossipy insider narrative of Trump’s disastrous White House in Michael Wolff’s monstrous hit book Fire and Fury, we journalists can’t help noticing something else: How on Earth did this guy get this much juicy access? I go through months of painstaking courtship with hoards of publicists to secure the interviews I want for my books, which simply tell the history of television shows. And yet this guy seems to be literally present for incendiary scene after incendiary scene, with major players like White House adviser Steve Bannon dropping uncensored quote bombs in between.
From what I’ve read about this, I’ve gleaned a few lessons for us all:
- Don’t be afraid to ask for the access you want. In the Hollywood Reporter, Wolff writes that he simply asked Trump, whom he’d interviewed previously for the Reporter, if he could hang out at the White House and write a book about it. According to Wolff’s account, Trump sort-of shrugged in response, showing little interest in the idea of a book. From there the plan just naturally unfolded: “Since the new White House was often uncertain about what the president meant or did not mean in any given utterance, his non-disapproval became a kind of passport for me to hang around — checking in each week at the Hay-Adams hotel, making appointments with various senior staffers who put my name in the ‘system,’ and then wandering across the street to the White House and plunking myself down, day after day, on a West Wing couch.” This is, to be clear, extraordinary, and likely would not have worked in an administration that knew what it was doing.
- Seeing stuff with your own eyes really enlivens a narrative. Even when I’m writing a history, I try to get into one or two real-life situations that I can report, like taking the Sex and the City bus tour as part of my research for my upcoming book on the show. Wolff has reams of colorful material, like White House spokesman Sean Spicer muttering to himself, “You can’t make this shit up,” after his first notorious press briefing, in which he was forced to delusionally insist that Trump’s inauguration crowd was huge.
- Sometimes schmoozing is necessary to win over an interview subject. This gets a little tricky. I’m all for casting your project in the best possible light when pitching it to your subjects. And we all use a little personality magic to gain our subjects’ trust. But apparently Wolff went around bashing mainstream political media—even in public—to make himself appear more sympathetic to the administration. He even cops to his own duplicity, writing at one point that officials were confiding in “a journalist they regarded as sympathetic.” This all feels a little beyond the standard schmoozing to me, and I don’t think I could feel good about doing it myself. He’s acting the part of the quintessential sleazy reporter, the archetype that undermines the rest of us trying to do an honest job. Then again, that’s why I don’t have a book flying off shelves so fast that stores can’t keep them in stock. And if Wolff’s book ends up helping to disempower our worst president, his methods aren’t going to look so bad, are they?