Wolff wrote that CNN published “details” of the infamous Trump-Russia dossier in January 2017 when, in fact, the network reported only that intelligence officials had presented a summary of the dossier to President Barack Obama and President-elect Trump. (“At this point,” the network's four-person reporting team wrote online, “CNN is not reporting on details of the memos, as it has not independently corroborated the specific allegations.”)
Wolff wrote that communications strategist Hope Hicks was 26 when she joined Trump's campaign (correct) but also wrote that she was 26 during his transition to the White House (incorrect). He reported in the book that Rupert Murdoch called Trump an “idiot,” then wrote in a Hollywood Reporter column that Murdoch said “moron” — an indication that Wolff misquoted the media baron in one place or the other, even if he captured the sentiment accurately.
How did mistakes like these get past a fact-checker? Neither Wolff nor his publisher, Henry Holt, responded to Fix inquiries about how — or whether — “Fire and Fury” was vetted.
Whether is a real question here. In many cases, publishers of nonfiction books such as Wolff's perform little, if any, fact-checking, leaving authors with a choice: pay out of their advances for someone to review their work or skip this pesky step altogether. Wolff thanked three people for fact-checking, in the book's acknowledgments section, but did not describe the scope of their work.
“In my experience, publishing houses rarely, if ever, pay for fact-checking,” said Robert Liguori, a freelance fact-checker who helped verify information in journalist Gabriel Sherman's biography of Roger Ailes. “I can't speak to whether any publishers have their own checking departments, but I have never heard of a major publishing house that has an internal staff to check its books.”
Liguori said he has always been hired by careful authors, never by a publisher.
Dan Kaufman, who has fact-checked books for New Yorker writers Jeffrey Toobin and Bill Finnegan, among others, told me the same thing. Now Kaufman is writing a book of his own, about Wisconsin politics.
“I've been a checker myself for 20 years, and I'm going to hire someone on my own book, just because it's great to have another set of eyes,” he said.
Author and New Yorker reporter Susan Orlean told me that she was “flabbergasted” when she turned in a manuscript for her first book and learned that her publisher did not plan to check her work. But she said she has come to understand that “publishers simply can't do it.”
“I mean, to properly fact-check a book basically means re-reporting a book,” she said. “That's how you do it. And a publisher can't do that, so I don't think it's malfeasance on their part or neglect. I think it's just not practical for them to do it, and they're assuming that you've done it.”
Orlean added that book publishers don't feel the same level of fact-checking pressure that news outlets do because readers often don't know or care who prints books and, therefore, are unlikely to blame publishers for errors.
“I guess the simple way of putting it is this: With magazines, the brand is more prominent than the individual writer, and they have a lot at stake in their contents,” Orlean said. “A publisher is a little bit more of a weigh station; content flows through it to the public.”
Henry Holt might be getting a pass for Wolff's mistakes, but the author does not appear to be paying a price, either — at least when it comes to sales. Many bookstores report that they quickly sold out their initial stocks of “Fire and Fury,” while the digital version ranks No. 1 on Amazon.
Perhaps Sam Tanenhaus, a former editor of the New York Times Book Review, spoke for the masses when he looked at the list of “Fire and Fury” mistakes I mentioned at the top of this article and said, “Gosh, those Wolff errors seem kind of flea-size, no?”
“It's worth pointing out [that] errors creep into almost all nonfiction books, especially on politics and history,” he said. “Some of our most meticulous and scrupulous authors will get things wrong.”
Mac McClelland, an author and former fact-checker at Mother Jones magazine, was less forgiving, arguing that small mistakes can undermine a book's authority on larger matters.
“To me, as a former fact-checker, that's alarming when I see tiny things,” McClelland said. “Easy fixes, easy catches — if those get missed and if those are wrong, then it does not inspire a ton of confidence in the big details.”