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Fact-checking Michael Wolff

It's unprecedented to see a president trying to keep a book off the shelves - and rare to see a publisher moving up t...

Posted: Jan. 8, 2018 2:30 PM
Updated: Jan. 9, 2018 7:34 AM

It's unprecedented to see a president trying to keep a book off the shelves - and rare to see a publisher moving up that book's on-sale date -- as has happened with Michael Wolff's explosive "Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House," which prompted "cease and desist" threats from one of Donald Trump's lawyers against Wolff, his publisher, and former chief strategist Steve Bannon. In response, John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan, the parent company of Wolff's publisher Henry Holt, sent a strongly worded memo to employees that the company would not back down.

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"Fire and Fury" has sparked a frenzy in Washington and beyond. Among many other things, the furor over the book has accelerated debates over reporting from unnamed sources and laid bare gaps between fact-checking processes in book publishing and in journalism.

CNN Opinion asked experts on free press and the presidency to weigh in: What can we learn from the issues raised by the reactions of the President and the press to Michael Wolff's book? The views expressed here are solely theirs.

Frank Sesno: With this much at stake, Wolff should be transparent

Michael Wolff's "Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House" turns a blowtorch on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Wolff's tales of disorganization, internecine warfare, and egomaniacal incompetence melt Trump's self-declared, steely image as a drain-the-swamp populist into a puddle of undisciplined, incurious, narcissism. The book, based on scores of named and unnamed sources, asserts a stunning contempt of process, complexity, and governance.

Wolff has long brought journalist's eye for chronology and quotes together with an author's instinct for subplots and buzz. He's quick and clever. He has an edge to his prose and an urgency to his narrative. But basic questions remain: Are his quotes accurate? Are they taken out of context? Are his sources solid or just settling scores?

In daily journalism, sources are the coin of the realm. Quotes are checked and verified. In certain cases, especially if an unnamed source makes a sensational claim, a damaging accusation or alleges wrongdoing, a top editor will ask the reporter to reveal the identity of the source, if only privately, to be sure the news organization has done its due diligence and the source's credibility and motivations have been vetted. But independent authors -- even journalist authors -- have no equivalent editing structure. The publisher works with the author, and assigns an editor, maybe even a fact-checker, but the author takes the lead. Checking quotes and sources varies from one publisher to the next.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Wolff's book trash. She said it was filled with "mistake after mistake," and asserted that Wolff didn't have access to the President. Trump's lawyer accused Wolff of defamation.

Wolff says Trump granted him a "passport" to "hang around" and he planted himself "day after day, on a West Wing couch," talking to virtually all the key players. He says he has notes and recordings.

In the interests of transparency, at a time when the stakes are so high and the allegations are so serious, when journalism is attacked and the public is distrustful of the media, Wolff should publish his on-the-record interviews. Let's hear the recordings. Turn the book into a multi-media experience to chronicle a multi-media presidency.

Then readers can decide for themselves whether Wolff put his "passport" to good use.

Frank Sesno is director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University. He is a veteran journalist who has worked for CNN and the Associated Press and the author of the recent book, "Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions, and Spark Change.

Tim Naftali: Book reaction shows ABCs of how not to handle criticism

Like practically everything associated with the 45th President, Donald Trump's response to Michael Wolff's instant bestseller has been over-the-top and damaging to the President and the American presidency.

I haven't read "Fire and Fury," so I don't yet know the context for the explosive excerpts. Nor do I have a sense of the sourcing. What I do know is that the President of the United States effectively tried to prevent me (and everyone else) from reading it. That alone makes the book historic.

Fortunately, the White House typically avoids the banning of criticism business. It is as likely to be successful as King Canute's legendary and foolhardy effort to control the tide. John F. Kennedy once publicly and briefly canceled the White House subscriptions to the New York Herald-Tribune apparently because he was angry about its coverage of his presidency. But Kennedy didn't try to ban anyone else from reading the paper and his pique didn't change the paper's editorial policy at all. Citing national security concerns, the Nixon administration more notoriously tried to stop further publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 -- a step that, as the recent movie "The Post" reminds us, was a total failure.

JFK had his share of gripes about the press but, at the end of the day, he reluctantly accepted that criticism was inevitable when, as he put it to his speechwriter Ted Sorensen, "living on the bull's-eye." Ronald Reagan, another iconic president did, too. Nixon didn't. Instead he created an enemies list, tried to act on it and ultimately paid a heavy price.

In his handling of the Wolff book -- the legal action, the White House statement, the tweets -- President Trump not only seems to be choosing the Nixonian way of handling criticism but is also effectively selling copy after copy of a book he despises by making the most salacious excerpts ring true. It's therefore no surprise that while doing media for his book, Wolff asked where he should send the box of chocolates to the President for all the free publicity.

Ironically Donald Trump is selling a critique of his presidency better than his presidency.

Tim Naftali is a CNN presidential historian who teaches history and public policy at NYU and a former director of the Richard Nixon library.

Suzanne Nossel: Publishers, writers, and the press need to stand their ground

The revelations contained in Michael Wolff's book are explosive, outlandish and, in some instances, reported to be thinly substantiated. According to President Trump and his attorney, many of the book's claims are false. The President has called on Wolff and his publisher, Henry Holt, to halt the book's publication and threatened them with a lawsuit alleging that its contents are libelous, defamatory and an infringement on the President's privacy.

Some commentators have taken Trump's decision to have a private attorney, Charles Harder, issue the letter on his behalf as reason to question whether the President's threats invoke the power of the government or should instead be treated as actions of an ordinary citizen. No one should be confused on this count. Wolff's book is about the Trump White House, researched within its corridors with access afforded by the President and his top aides. That the letter was written on law firm stationery rather than White House letterhead should fool no one. When the President or his agents speak, the weight of the government bears down behind their words. The President is using his power in an effort to threaten and punish protected speech, and to cow others writers who might cover his presidency.

On their face, the President's threats and demands amount to an unconstitutional attempt to exercise prior restraint, preventing publication of a work that is protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has enforced strict prohibitions on government efforts to block publications from seeing the light of day. Its jurisprudence to this effect began with Near v. Minnesota in 1931, wherein the court struck down a state law intended to squelch expos-s about malfeasance by local officials. The court found that the law's effect of barring publication of scandalous or defamatory matter absent the publisher being able to substantiate its truth was "of the essence of censorship." The court made clear that while acute national security considerations might sometimes justify preventing information from being published, by contrast, alleged untruths or malicious intent are not valid grounds to impose prior restraint.

The premise of this and subsequent rulings is that, under the First Amendment, it is better to punish unprotected speech -- libel or slander, for example -- after the fact than to impose restraints that may silence protected speech. This is not to dismiss Trump's claims about the veracity of Wolff's account; while some of the book may be false or even defamatory, there is plainly much in it that isn't. Regardless, that some writing may be sloppy, salacious or even slanderous doesn't justify action by the government to ban or censor. Erring on the side of permitting expression to be voiced and heard, the law offers a remedy after the fact that may include injunctive relief and damages.

Henry Holt deserves credit for responding to the President's order with defiance, accelerating release of the book. Holt, other publishers, writers and readers need to hold firm in their resolve so that the right to write, to read and to express oneself that dates back to the founding of the United States survives the reign of the Trump White House.

Suzanne Nossel is executive director of PEN America. She was formerly executive director of Amnesty International USA and deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the State Department.

W. Joseph Campbell: Journalists should try to verify Wolff's claims themselves

Unless they can independently and thoroughly confirm the information, journalists would do well to sidestep claims in Michael Wolff's book (and elsewhere) that are attributed to unnamed sources or have been disputed by purported authors of the quotations.

Anonymously sourced stories, after all, can lead to acute embarrassment for news organizations. Take, for example, the Washington Post's exclusive, anonymously sourced story about the supposed battlefield heroics of Jessica Lynch, then a 19-year-old clerk in a US Army maintenance unit that was ambushed in Iraq in the early days of the war launched in 2003, turned out to be in error in all important respects. And yet, the Post never fully or adequately explained how it got the story so utterly wrong and never clarified the identity of the sources.

Meanwhile a false narrative took hold that the US military concocted the story about Lynch and fed it to the Post in an attempt to bolster popular support for the war, which at the time was already very strong.

Unnamed sources can be helpful to journalists, especially in reporting topics of national security. But frequent or routine reliance on unnamed sources can be problematic, especially in this time of "fake news." Persuading sources to speak on the record is the policy at many, if not all, major US news organizations. Such policies deserve more internal vigilance and compliance.

Additionally, news consumers ought be very wary or skeptical about news stories based largely or exclusively on anonymous sourcing. That can be a tip-off that the story is shakier than it may seem. Too-frequent use of unnamed sources also can undercut popular confidence in the news media, which is already quite low.

W. Joseph Campbell is a professor at the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C., and the author of six books about journalism, including the media-mythbusting work, "Getting It Wrong."

David Love: Trump the candidate should not have made it out of the gate, so why did he?

The news media are a diverse lot, and journalists have addressed the incompetence, chaos and alleged misconduct of the Trump administration in different ways, some of them by consistently holding the feet of those in power to the fire. Wolff's book resonates because it reinforces if not confirms what many have believed since the 2016 campaign, but more importantly reflects what other journalists have reported and reiterated -- the recklessness, the shady dealings in Trump Tower and the White House, the alleged Russia connection, and a chief executive who not only lacks intellectual curiosity and mental stability, but has lost his senses.

"Fire and Fury" is no surprise, yet is different. While many reporters informed the public of a fire in the house once Donald Trump became the Republican nominee and then the President, some of them during the campaign chose to take a seat in the burning building and invite us to roast marshmallows. Michael Wolff's book is a call to action. With a loud yell, he warns us of the still-burning conflagration, points to the arsonists, and tells us that if we fail to act, our democratic institutions will go up in flames.

Democracy requires well-informed citizens. Schools don't teach civics or history as they should, and the media must do their job. Trump the candidate should not have made it out of the gate. He has brought together a troubling mix of news, politics and reality show entertainment, which is reflected in the coverage of a most pathological and fact-averse presidency.

Some reporters who should have known better failed to do their homework during the campaign. They glossed over the sexual assault allegations and the brown shirt rallies, and enabled Trump because of the entertainment value of his showmanship and barnstorming.

With potential voters relying on Trump's flimsy reputation as a business mogul who makes great deals, some journalists did not pursue as doggedly as they could have the hard questions about this man's past and his fitness for office. Now, reporters attend the daily press briefings and, as vocally as they persist in trying to hold the White House accountable, still participate in a farce.

Why do they bother when they know Sarah Huckabee Sanders will dodge their questions and provide no useful information? Seeking access instead of answers, some reporters have still not scrutinized Trump to the fullest extent, instead proclaiming him presidential when he speaks in complete sentences. Under these circumstances, it is hard to imagine Obama, Clinton had she won, or even Bush getting the benefit of the doubt from the mainstream media the way that Donald Trump has.

David A. Love writes for thegrio.com, a website dedicated to covering news in the African-American community. He is a writer and commentator based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter:@DavidALove.

Mark Bauerlein: This is what really undermines the principles of evidence and nonpartisanship

Before we hold Michael Wolff's book up to journalistic standards, let's remember where we are in America in 2018. Yes, principles of evidence and nonpartisanship in reportage have evolved admirably over the last 150 years. But over the same period, another evolution has taken place that undermines those principles.

It started with Karl Marx, who in "The German Ideology" cast all intellectuals as "ideologists" whose job is to rationalize the pretensions of the ruling class. Journalists weren't truth-seekers.They were flunkies for kings and politicians.

Then there was Nietzsche, who said, "facts do not exist, only interpretations." I heard this slogan a thousand times when I was in graduate school. It was recited whenever anyone in a seminar or panel talked about getting the evidence right, journalists included.

Freud, too, undermined the journalist's eyes and ears when, in "The Psychopathology of Everyday Life," and other writings, he demonstrated unconscious biases and psychic distortions operating in even innocent-seeming behaviors.

These anti-objectivity ideas circulated in academic and intellectual zones for decades. But now they are part of public life and mass culture.

Identity politics asks us to consider the race, sexuality, etc. of any inquirer before we accept the results of his inquiry. Postmodernism sees every truth and fact as "situational" and socially constructed.

Donald Trump's "fake news" coinage is an extension of this tradition (a brilliant one). People who attribute it only to his gamesmanship don't realize that it rides the tidal currents of our culture. Wolff's reportage may be right here and wrong there, but that's just a matter of interpretation, right? The bigger question is whether journalism that reveres facts over politics can survive in a post-truth society.

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University, senior editor of the journal First Things and author of "The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future; Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30."

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