Wolff’s book confirms what we already knew: that Trump is unfit for office

Michael Wolff. Photo (cc) 2008 by Eirik Solheim.

Previously published at WGBH News.

The idea that Donald Trump is too mentally unstable to serve as president is not new. Just a few weeks after the 2016 election, the liberal commentator Keith Olbermann thundered that Trump should be removed from office under the 25th Amendment — and never mind that Trump wouldn’t actually be sworn in for two more months.

“For my money, he’s nuts — couldn’t pass a sanity test, open book,” Olbermann said in a GQ video viewed more than 840,000 times.

Olbermann was hardly alone. During the past year President Trump’s psychological fitness has been regular fodder for the media. Stat, the Boston Globe-owned health and life-sciences news service, tracked the deterioration of the president’s verbal abilities and gave a platform to a physician who speculated that Trump has an “organic brain disorder.” CNN media reporter Brian Stelter has asked repeatedly if Trump is “fit for office.” Last Wednesday, Politico revealed that a Yale psychiatrist, Bandy X. Lee, the editor of a book titled “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” had met with members of Congress and told them, “He’s going to unravel, and we are seeing the signs.”

All of which is to say that when Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” was released late last week, the ground was already plowed and well-fertilized. So it’s no surprise that it became an immediate sensation. If Wolff were providing us with new information, we would need time to process it, to assess the truthfulness of his reporting (something that’s happening anyway), to weigh it against other accounts of the president’s behavior. Instead, it confirms and adds detail to the story of the childish, impetuous, cruel, and supremely self-centered bully who has dominated our public discourse from the moment that he rode down that escalator some two and a half years ago.

Note, by the way, that I did not write that Trump has “narcissistic personality disorder” or “organic brain disease” or any of the other psychological and medical conditions that have been ascribed to him. I’m not qualified, of course. But neither is a highly credentialed psychiatrist unless he or she has actually peered inside the presidential skull. Whether Trump is suffering from a diagnosable psychological disorder is beside the point — we can observe his horrendous and frightening behavior on a daily basis. This is, after all, a man who took to Twitter just last week to assert that his nuclear button is bigger than Kim Jong Un’s. (Sometimes a cigar really isn’t just a cigar.) Is the why really that important? As Josh Marshall put it at Talking Points Memo:

All the diagnosis of a mental illness could tell us is that Trump might be prone to act in ways that we literally see him acting in every day: impulsive, erratic, driven by petty aggressions and paranoia, showing poor impulsive control, an inability to moderate self-destructive behavior. He is frequently either frighteningly out of touch with reality or sufficiently pathological in his lying that it is impossible to tell. Both are very bad.

You may have heard that there are errors in “Fire and Fury.” That Wolff must have been wrong when he claimed that Trump didn’t know who John Boehner was. That a few names and facts are mixed up and that some Trump officials claim they were misquoted. At such a fraught moment, it’s too bad that Wolff wasn’t more careful given that Trump and his supporters (and, sadly, New York Times reporter Ken Vogel) will seize upon anything to discredit him. But having read the book over the weekend, I was struck by how much of it was already publicly known, and how much of what wasn’t known came from the exceedingly careless lips of Trump’s thuggish former mastermind, Stephen Bannon, who hasn’t denied anything — including his description of a meeting between a Russian contact and Trump campaign officials Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner as “treasonous.”

Moreover, the president’s attempts to discredit the book have only bolstered Wolff’s standing — especially Trump’s threat to sue Bannon for violating a nondisclosure agreement, a tacit acknowledgment that what Bannon told Wolff was true. Nor did it help that the president bizarrely tweeted that he is a “very stable genius” in response to Wolff’s evidence that he is, well, unstable and is thought by some of his associates to be borderline illiterate.

Last Friday, on NBC’s “Today” show, Wolff said that “100 percent of the people around” Trump, “senior advisers, family members, every single one of them, questions his intelligence and fitness for office.” Do you doubt that? Recall that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the president a “fucking moron.” Consider that former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg concedes he probably told Wolff that Trump is an “idiot.” Remember how mortified the president’s staff was when Trump defendedthe “many good people” in the white nationalist movement.

The media need not offer a clinical diagnosis of the president in order to tell us about his state of mind. What news organizations have been doing, and should be doing more of, is reporting on whether Trump is fit for office. Michael Wolff has done all of us a service by moving that subject from chatter on the periphery to the center of the public conversation.

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The Guardian struggles with its free digital model

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 11.03.43 AMMedia observer Michael Wolff writes in USA Today about the difficulties facing any news organization that seeks to make all or most of its money from digital advertising. His example is The Guardian, a left-leaning British newspaper to which he and I both used to contribute.

The Guardian is proudly, aggressively digital. Its print edition is little more than a vestigial limb (especially outside the UK), and its executives refuse to implement a paywall. The result, Wolff says, is that the trust set up to run The Guardian in perpetuity is running out of money. As I wrote last week for WGBHNews.org, relying on digital advertising is a dubious proposition because its very ubiquity is destroying its value. Wolff puts it this way:

The reality is that the Guardian’s future is almost entirely dependent on advertising revenue in a medium where the price of a view heads inexorably to an increment hardly above zero. But the hope remains that, in ways yet to be imagined, some innovation will make large profits suddenly possible.

Digital paywalls are helping to bolster the bottom line at papers like The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, and The Boston Globe—but they are hardly a solution to the larger problems the newspaper business faces. Print advertising still brings in most of the revenue, but it’s on the wane.

Last week I visited The Philadelphia Inquirer, a major metro similar to the Globe that was recently donated to a nonprofit foundation. It’s a promising ownership model. The Inquirer still needs to break even, which is no sure thing. But local control, no pressure to meet the expectations of shareholders, and the possibility of some grant money being raised to pay for reporting projects may bring stability to the Inquirer after years of chaos. (The nonprofit New Haven Independent was the main focus of my 2013 book, The Wired City.)

One thing they’re not talking about at the Inquirer is free digital, even though the Inquirer and its sister paper, the tabloid Daily News, compete with a vibrant (though small) free digital-only project called Billy Penn, whose modest budget is paid primarily by sponsoring events. Though I remain skeptical about paywalls for reasons I laid out in my WGBH piece, the one thing I’m certain of is that the money has to come from somewhere.

Why Brian Williams’ return will be a disaster for NBC News

Brian Williams
Brian Williams

I really don’t understand why the folks at NBC News think serial fabricator Brian Williams can be rehabilitated. CNN’s Brian Stelter reports that Williams’ second act could be announced as early as today.

Yes, Williams is receiving a significant demotion — he’s supposedly being shipped off to MSNBC, which had a nice run as the liberal alternative to Fox News before plunging into unwatched obscurity the past couple of years. But given that NBC News major domo Andrew Lack is reportedly seeking to revive MSNBC with an injection of actual news, how can a guy who set fire to his own credibility be part of that? As Jay Rosen put it on Twitter: “NBC has to explain how he’s lost the credibility to anchor the nightly news but still has the cred to do the news on MSNBC.”

Remember, we’re not just talking about Williams’ lies regarding his helicopter ride in Iraq. There have been multiple instances in which he overstated the facts or just made stuff up. The New York Times reports:

Almost immediately after the controversy erupted, NBC opened an investigation into Mr. Williams, led by Richard Esposito, the senior executive producer for investigations. Over the last several months it uncovered 10 to 12 instances in which he was thought to have exaggerated or fabricated accounts of his reporting, according to people familiar with the inquiry.

And just wait until one of Williams’ anonymous enemies posts a “closely held” clip reel on YouTube that is said to document his worst moments. The Washington Post has this to say:

The video, produced by the team of NBC journalists assigned to review Williams’s statements in media appearances, makes a vivid case against the anchor, according to people familiar with it, isolating a number of questionable statements Williams has made.

Professional cynic Michael Wolff told old friend Mark Leibovich recently that NBC never should have abandoned Williams in the first place. Rather, he said, the network’s executives should have done their best Roger Ailes imitation and defended him as aggressively as Fox News has defended its own business interests.

But this is stupidity masquerading as sagacity. NBC News is not the Fox News Channel. Fox’s product is right-wing talk. NBC News’ purported product is news, served up truthfully. In that market, Williams’ value plunged to zero or close to it within days of his exposure last winter. (The next person who says he would rather see Williams back in the anchor chair rather than Lester Holt will be the first.) I suspect Wolff knows that, but the man does enjoy being provocative.

As for Williams, he needs to leave journalism. And it’s not up to NBC to help him figure out how.

Photo (cc) by David Shankbone and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Also published at WGBHNews.org.

An innuendo-laden attack on Greenwald

Edward Jay Epstein has written an innuendo-laden column for The Wall Street Journal in which he strongly insinuates that filmmaker Laura Poitras and/or journalist/blogger/lawyer Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian criminally assisted Edward Snowden in leaking National Security Agency documents.

Epstein’s toxic brew of archly worded questions leads to the inescapable conclusion that he believes the two journalists ought to be investigated and possibly charged under the World War I-era Espionage Act.

Josh Stearns, who serves with Greenwald on the Freedom of the Press Foundation board, has some thoughts about journalism and the Espionage Act. He writes:

The First Amendment and press freedom questions that haunt the Espionage Act are particularly important right now. Changes in media and technology have put the tools of journalism and media making in the hands of more and more people, challenging old assumptions about who is a journalist and how journalism is done. Increasingly, independent journalists, nonprofit news outlets and citizens are playing critical roles in newsgathering and reporting on the most important issues of our time.

I don’t think Stearns gives sufficient weight to the idea that merely publishing leaked documents is, in fact, a violation of the law, and that investigative journalism depends on the hopeful notion that the government won’t use its authority. Otherwise, though, it’s a useful guide to the issues at stake.

More: Greenwald responds to the Epstein column in this Storify involving (mainly) Jeff Jarvis and Michael Wolff.

How news execs can avoid the online ad meltdown

Writing in Technology Review, the noted media critic Michael Wolff says Facebook is doomed — and is going to take the Web down with it. The reason: online advertising, ubiquitous and not particularly lucrative, is in a death spiral.

In my latest for the Nieman Journalism Lab, I take a look at Wolff’s analysis, and suggest some ways that news organizations can avoid the meltdown.

And thank you to Harvey Silverglate for pointing me to Wolff’s provocative essay.

What a Bing News deal might mean for journalism

cash_register_20091130I can’t remember the last time the media world was as excited about a business deal that may or may not be consummated as the one involving Microsoft and Rupert Murdoch. The reason, I think, is three-fold.

First, it potentially moves us beyond the tired old debate about pay walls (I say “potentially,” because we don’t know if Murdoch will give up on that misbegotten notion).

Second, it could provide an answer to the question of who should pay whom, and how.

Third, it could represent a monetary boost for paid journalism at a moment when the profession is in the midst of an existential crisis.

In simple terms, here’s how the deal might work. Microsoft is said to be offering to pay Murdoch and other newspaper publishers (and you’d need a lot of them; Rupe can’t do this alone) to make their sites invisible to Google, a simple matter that involves inserting a line of code. Thus if you wanted to search for a news story about, say, President Obama’s upcoming speech on Afghanistan, you would have use Microsoft’s Bing instead of Google.

Bing News would compete with Google’s automatically assembled Google News service. But, unlike Google, Microsoft would share advertising revenues from Bing News with the news organizations to which it is linking.

To be sure, Google News is the most benign of aggregators. It places no advertising on its home page. That’s important because it’s a customizable substitute front page. Most people read a news site by scanning headlines and ledes, and only occasionally clicking on a story. Thus, if Google were to try to make money from the Google News home page, it could rightly be accused of stealing the most valuable parts of newspaper stories and profiting from that theft. (And, as we know, there are aggregators that do precisely that. As I’ve argued before, Michael Wolff’s Newser may be the most blatant.)

If you search Google News, you will be shown ads related to what you’re looking for. But as Howard Owens has pointed out, if you are searching for a news story on a particular topic, then you are going to click through. Those are valuable readers whom Google is sending to news organizations. And, as Jeff Jarvis argues, it’s not Google’s fault if newspaper executives haven’t been able to figure out how to monetize the audience Google is sending to them.

With that bit of background out of the way, let’s turn this on its head. One of the things about Internet commerce that makes for such fascinating — and frustrating — debate is that it’s unclear which direction the money should be moving in. Even though Google has attempted to step lightly with its news service, Murdoch and some other news executives argue that Google should share ad revenues generated by Google News.

But imagine, if you will, an alternative universe in which newspaper sites were rolling in advertising revenues from readers Google sent their way, but in which Google itself couldn’t find a way to make any money. (Such a scenario requires you to believe a number of ridiculous things, but never mind.) Can you imagine what the debate would be? You’d hear demands that cash-fattened newspaper owners share some of their newly gotten wealth with Google. You’d hear threats that Google would exclude news sites that refused.

My point is that there isn’t really any underlying principle as to who ought to pay for what online. Rather, the debate is driven by who’s making money, who’s losing money and — here’s where we get back to Microsoft — the business model of any particular Internet company.

What is Microsoft’s business interest with respect to Bing? Simply this: to build market share, establishing Bing as a serious search alternative to Google. Bing has a long way to go, with 10 percent of the market to Google’s 65 percent. That said, Bing has received good reviews since its debut earlier this year. And it’s really the only search engine to emerge as any kind of rival to Google pretty much since Google slipped into view in the late 1990s.

Bing News, as a partner of news sites rather than a rival, would have some advantages over Google News. The biggest would be that it wouldn’t have to pussyfoot around with regard to advertising. Since it would be sharing revenue, it could assemble an ad-laden home page, and make its search results more advertising-driven than Google News’ are.

Since it would be sharing those revenues, the news organizations, rather than complain, would be cheering Microsoft on. And if users came to understand that they had to visit Bing in order to search, say, the world’s 100 or so biggest and best newspapers, then Bing would quickly gain market share at Google’s expense.

Sadly, this would represent a significant setback to Google’s vision of indexing all the world’s knowledge. But there has always been an inherent tension in leaving it to a private corporation to carry out such a utopian plan. Look at the ongoing battle over Google Books, which would benefit everyone, but none more than Google.

It would also represent business as usual for Microsoft, which dominated the 1980s and ’90s not by offering more to its customers but by crippling its competitors. This is a company that, as legend would have it, built market share for its spreadsheet, Excel, by rewriting MS-DOS — its Windows precursor — so that the leading program, Lotus 1-2-3, wouldn’t run properly. “The job’s not done till Lotus won’t run” is one variation of the supposed battle cry heard in Redmond. Paying newspapers to pull out of Google is just the latest iteration of that theme.

But will it work? Is there any way a Bing News service could generate the sort of advertising revenue that would make up for a significant chunk of what the traditional media have lost? Somehow it seems doubtful. Still, it strikes me as a far more worthy experiment than whatever Steven Brill has been cooking up with his paid-content scheme for lo these many months. I hope we’ll get a chance to see how this all plays out.