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Michael Wolff’s Trump book: The latest in a career of controversy

Michael Wolff speaks at the Newseum in Washington in April. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Last February, as the Trump presidency was just lifting off the ground, CNN’s Brian Stelter invited media critic Michael Wolff onto his show “Reliable Sources” for some awkward on-air chitchat.

Wolff had taken shots in a recent Newsweek column at the media’s “apoplexy” over the 45th president, specifically calling out Stelter for delivering on his show each week, in the writer’s words, a “pious sermon about Trump’s perfidiousness.”

“I hope I pronounced that right,” Stelter joked for a gawky transition. “Do you feel my style is wrong or my substance is wrong, trying to fact check the president?”

Wolff, snazzy in a dandy banker’s navy suit, pocket square, and trademark thick framed glasses, didn’t flinch. “I mean this with truly no disrespect, but I think you can border on being quite a ridiculous figure,” he told the host. “It’s not a good look to repeatedly and self-righteously defend your own self-interest. The media should not be the story.”

The television moment — an acerbic jab at a media heavyweight on his own show — was classic Wolff. But it was also a bit of foreshadowing. Nearly a year later, Michael Wolff himself is very much the story this week.

Michael Wolff, author of “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” spoke to the “Today” show Jan. 5, following President Trump’s legal efforts to st (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

On Wednesday, the Guardian leaked portions of Wolff’s new book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” which is set to arrive in bookstores on Jan. 9. New York magazine followed suit, publishing a lengthy excerpt. Based on interviews and inside access, the book presents a portrait of the messy innards of the Trump administration. The excerpts hit the news cycle like a thunderbolt, dominating television and Internet chatter with Wolff’s revelations of life inside Trump’s erratic inner circle — a group of people who never expected to win the presidency in the first place, according to Wolff’s telling.

But the buzz has also swung back around on the author. Wolff has made his career lobbing critical bombs from the pages of prestigious magazines like New York and Vanity Fair. He has also, as The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi wrote on Wednesday, been accused by critics of “pushing the facts as far as they’ll go, and sometimes further than they can tolerate.” Attacks have already started on the book’s credibility, coming from both beat reporters dialed into the administration, and far right Trump backers like Alex Jones.

The continued questions about the book’s revelations are sure to bring more attention — and more book sales — for Wolff, who in the space of a day not only ignited the news cycle but may have set the stage for a civil war between Trump and former adviser Stephen K. Bannon, though Bannon himself declared Wednesday night that he still supports Trump and considers him a “great man.”

Stephen K. Bannon used to be a member of President Trump's inner circle, but now he's been ousted from Breitbart News after critical comments in a new book. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Wolff is a mash-up of old-school New York media and the dot-com world. His main subject over the years has been big money power players and their endless attempts to reinvent the news and entertainment businesses. Wolff was brought up in close proximity to this world. His father ran an advertising agency in New Jersey in the 1950s, Campaign has reported. He later launched his career writing for magazines in New York, and eventually dabbled in the start-up world of early Internet media ventures.

“Wolff is the quintessential New York creation, fixated on culture, style, buzz, and money, money, money,” Michelle Cottle wrote in a 2004 New Republic profile. “Part gossip columnist, part psychotherapist, part social anthropologist, Wolff invites readers to be a fly on the wall of the moguls’ inner sanctum.”

Writing in the Atlantic, Eric Alterman had a less charitable take, dubbing Wolff  “a portraitist who has mastered the art of the suck-up putdown.”

His gossipy media world columns have earned industry kudos. Wolff twice won the National Magazine Award for commentary, in 2002 and 2004. Yet his reputation in journalism circles is not bulletproof. Critics have blasted the writer in the past for filling his column inches with insight and imaginative recreation rather than actual reporting. “Historically, one of the problems with Wolff’s omniscience is that while he may know all, he gets some of it wrong,” David Carr wrote in a 2008 New York Times review of Wolff’s 2008 book on Rupert Murdoch.

“His great gift is the appearance of intimate access,” an editor told Cottle in 2004. “He is adroit at making the reader think that he has spent hours and days with his subject, when in fact he may have spent no time at all.” Another former colleague said: “He did get a lot of things majorly wrong, but he never was just pedestrian . . . You have to admire his balls.”

But Wolff has also been taken to task for blurring the lines between hot take and hatchet job. “Wolff exploits the human tendency to confuse frankness and cruelty with truth-telling,” media critic Jack Shafer wrote in Slate in 1998. “And by repeatedly reminding the reader of what a dishonest, scheming little s— he is, he seeks to inflate his credibility.”

As The Post reported this week, credibility has been a repeated issue. Wolff’s first bestseller, “Burn Rate: How I Survived the Gold Rush Years on the Internet,” came under fire after Brill’s Content found a dozen individuals who disputed their quotes in the book. When Wolff was later penning a regular column for New York magazine, book editor Judith Regan called foul on a column about her, as did Andrew Sullivan. Both disputed Wolff’s portrayals of them.

Yet these charges did not derail Wolff’s career, and in Trump — the uncensored New York mogul — the writer has found a subject who encapsulates many of the themes and issues that have kept his pen busy for his entire career. In his columns and television appearances over the last year, Wolff has repeatedly criticized the media for missing the Trump story — the very tale his book seeks to lay out.

“This is the most extraordinary story of our time,” Wolff told CNBC after the November 2016. “It is time to listen to these people. They won.”

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