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Journalists scrutinize Michael Wolff’s credibility

After setting Washington ablaze with “Fire and Fury,” his gossipy account of infighting and incompetence in the West Wing, author Michael Wolff will face questions Friday morning about reporting methods that have come under scrutiny not only from the Trump White House, but other journalists.

Wolff’s publisher moved up the debut of the book to Friday to accommodate intense interest, while NBC’s “Today” show touted the first major interview with the author that morning.

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The moves came after a day in which Wolff took heavy fire from the White House, while journalists — many of whom have had personal encounters with the 64-year-old New York media writer — engaged in a daylong social-media debate on his credibility.

“I wonder how many [White House] staff told Wolff things off the record that he then used on the record,” Bloomberg View columnist Joe Nocera tweeted Thursday. “He’s never much cared about burning sources. Can’t imagine that many of those quotes were meant for publication.”

Steven Rattner, a journalist-turned-financier and former Obama auto czar, tweeted Thursday that “[Steve] Bannon may well have said all that stuff but let’s remember that Wolff is an unprincipled writer of fiction.”

Wolff and Rattner have a history of animosity, with Wolff writing critically about Rattner in his 2003 book, “Autumn of the Moguls,” and also in Vanity Fair. And then there’s Rattner’s claim that Wolff used his 7-year-old son, on a play date with one of Rattner’s children, to extract information. He’s “a total sleazebag,” Rattner tweeted.

While other journalists aren’t using such sweeping terms, Nocera and Rattner’s comments reflect a broader skepticism among journalists over the veracity of certain details — Trump wouldn’t know John Boehner? — and the writer’s methods in recounting exchanges behind closed doors.

But Wolff also has had his share of defenders, like Hollywood Reporter co-president Janice Min. She backed up up Wolff’s lengthy retelling of a conversation between Breitbart News executive chairman Steve Bannon and late Fox News chief Roger Ailes at a small Manhattan dinner party. (Wolff also reportedly hosted the party, a detail not disclosed in the book). “Every word I’ve seen from the book about it is absolutely accurate,” Min tweeted.

Another defender, Reuters’ Jonathan Weber, said “nothing ever led me to doubt [Wolff’s] reporting” when editing his work years back. And Wolff also recorded dozens of conversations with officials, like Bannon, according to Axios’ Mike Allen, which may back up other aspects of the book.

Wolff, a longtime chronicler of Manhattan’s power elite who did not respond to requests for comment, has faced accusations in the past of playing loose with facts in his columns and books, and of not honoring ground rules with sources.

In a 2004 profile, The New Republic’s Michelle Cottle wrote that “the scenes in his columns aren’t recreated so much as created — springing from Wolff’s imagination rather than from actual knowledge of events.” Instead of conventional reporting, she wrote, Wolff “absorbs the atmosphere and gossip swirling around him at cocktail parties, on the street, and especially during those long lunches at Michael’s.”

The late New York Times media columnist David Carr wrote in a review of Wolff’s 2008 biography of Fox News mogul Rupert Murdoch, “The Man Who Owns the News,” that “historically one of the problems with Wolff’s omniscience is that while he may know all, he gets some of it wrong.”

No one is disputing Wolff spent time in the White House, though press ecretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has suggested the author spoke with the president for only a few minutes and suggested that almost all the material in the book is from deposed strategist Bannon and his allies.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders is pictured. | AP Photo

Wolff described himself in the book as “constant interloper,” who was able to observe the chaos around him because there was no one imposing order. He said Trump encouraged the book, which is drawn from 200 interviews. “Some of my sources spoke to me on so-called deep background, a convention of contemporary political books that allows for a disembodied description of events provided by an unnamed witness to them,” Wolff disclosed in the book.

Excerpts alone have dominated the White House briefing for two days, with Sanders dismissing the book Thursday as “complete fantasy and just full of tabloid gossip.”

But the White House clearly is taking it seriously. Even before hitting shelves, the fallout has already included President Donald Trump harshly rebuking Bannon and later threatening Wolff’s publisher, a form of prior restraint that would likely be found unconstitutional.

The publisher, Henry Holt & Co., confirmed Thursday that it received a cease-and-desist letter from Trump’s attorney, but in a statement it touted “Fire and Fury” as “an extraordinary contribution to our national discourse” and said the firm is “proceeding with the publication of the book.” The publisher even moved up the sale date from Tuesday to Friday at 9 a.m., following Wolff’s appearance on the “Today” show.

Wolff has always defended his reporting, but nonetheless seemed to revel in his persona as a contrarian who bucks the more self-serious journalistic herd.

In his book on Murdoch, Wolff suggested the Fox News mogul’s willingness to give him unprecedented access “had something to do with his perception that I regarded many of his enemies — particularly the journalistic priesthood — with some of the same contempt with which he regarded them.”

Wolff also enjoyed a good relationship with Ailes, while knocking other media reporters, like Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman, for their coverage of Fox News. And Wolff nabbed an exclusive post-election interview with Bannon, yet another conservative media figure quick to attack the media as liberal and out-of-touch.

President Donald Trump and Rep. Chris Collins are pictured. | Getty Images

Wolff responded to critics of the Bannon interview by saying journalists should be less oppositional toward the incoming administration and more like stenographers. “You’re there to literally convey what someone in power says, and you bring it to people who want to know,” he said. Wolff next profiled Kellyanne Conway around inauguration.

While Wolff was settling into his front row seat at the White House, he wrote pieces for Newsweek and The Hollywood Reporter about how the press, supposedly smug and reflexively anti-Trump, was failing in its coverage.

He told CNN’s Brian Stelter he was becoming “quite a ridiculous figure” by “repeatedly and self-righteously” defending the press’ interests amid Trump’s attacks. While on stage with Conway in April, Wolff labeled reporter Maggie Haberman’s beat at The New York Times as covering an “aberrant president.”

Such repeated jabs at the press might have led White House officials to believe Wolff was on their side and would portray them in a positive light. But as Sherman remarked Thursday on Twitter, it’s “baffling” they gave such access to Wolff knowing that Murdoch — who did the same several years back — was upset with the end result. And Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner speak to Murdoch all the time, Sherman noted.

To which Wolff responded: “I kept waiting for that call to be made.”

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