Did New York Magazine Fact-Check Michael Wolff?

From a Washington Post column by Eric Wemple headlined “Did New York magazine fact-check Michael Wolff?”:

Michael Wolff is at it again. The best-selling author has cranked out another book — “The Fall: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty” — and with it, another round of salacious-but-flimsy claims.

The book addresses the network’s coverage of the 2020 presidential election and contains new allegations about the settlement of defamation claims from Dominion Voting Systems related to that coverage; host Tucker Carlson’s firing; and other details from a tumultuous period at the No. 1 cable news channel.

“New,” however, doesn’t necessarily mean “true.” Wolff has already fielded sharp questions, and provided feeble answers, about the gossipy representations in “The Fall.” Ho-hum — books are hit-or-miss propositions when it comes to factual reporting, in part because publishing houses generally don’t fact-check, a function left up to authors. Results vary.

Yet Wolff managed to debut his stuff in a widely read excerpt in New York magazine, where he is a contributor. Unlike the book sector, American magazines have a formidable fact-checking legacy, and it bears asking: What did New York magazine do to check Wolff’s facts? Based on what they told the Erik Wemple Blog, quite a bit, though a pat-down of key points in the text places its efforts in doubt.

There’s a theme running through these poorly substantiated passages, too: They tend to swing in favor of Carlson, who distinguished himself as the country’s most dangerous misinformer over his six-plus years as an evening host at Fox News.

In his own defense, Wolff is wrapping himself in the memory of Tom Wolfe. FWIW.

Wolff’s authorial methods precede him. In an assessment of his 2018 book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” PolitiFact concluded that “many details are simply wrong” and that “by any standard of sound journalism it has big problems with transparency and sourcing.” Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who served for a time as Donald Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, would agree.

In “Fire and Fury,” Wolff reported that Haley “had become a particular focus of Trump’s attention, and he of hers.” In an interview with HBO’s Bill Maher, Wolff said that he was “absolutely sure” about an instance of marital infidelity by Trump but couldn’t prove it. “You just have to read between the lines … It’s toward the end of the book,” he told Maher, leaving no question that he was talking about Haley.

Haley forcefully denied the claim, which has turned into Wolff’s perpetual exclusive.

He reports on an alleged conversation between Carlson and Viet Dinh, Fox Corp.’s top legal executive. “Dinh, who Carlson thought had perhaps been drinking, told Carlson he was reconciled to being the fall guy” in the Dominion legal disaster, Wolff writes. A spokesperson for Fox Corp. told the Erik Wemple Blog that Wolff never presented the company with any allegations he was preparing to publish; instead, he texted a couple of company executives, saying, “I’m writing about Fox and would love to chat.” They did not engage; additionally, Wolff tweeted that Rupert Murdoch replied, “No thank you” to his outreach. As to the specifics, the spokesperson says, “Viet Dinh did not have this conversation or any such conversation with Tucker Carlson.”

He suggests a possible incident of canine abuse by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). As Wolff tells the tale, DeSantis visited the home of Tucker Carlson and his wife, Susie Carlson, to kiss the ring of this powerful right-wing media figure. But he apparently didn’t respect the household royalty — Carlson’s crew of spaniels. “DeSantis pushed the dog under the table. Had he kicked the dog? Susie Carlson’s judgment was clear: She did not ever want to be anywhere near anybody like that ever again.”

This claim kicked back at Wolff: Both the DeSantis campaign and Carlson used the word “absurd” in comments dismissing the story. Cornered on his implausible reporting, Wolff lashed out: “The source on this is Tucker himself,” he told Mediaite. “I just reflect what he told me.”

Had Wolff been interested in the truth about the dogs, he could have asked another person in attendance at Carlson’s house. Like DeSantis! But did he? The governor’s office and a campaign spokesperson both told the Erik Wemple Blog that they’d received no outreach from Wolff. The campaign spokesperson also said New York magazine hadn’t been in touch with the campaign.

He suggests that Fox News communications executive Irena Briganti, who had clashed with Carlson, helped the New York Times connect the dots for its series on the controversial host: “Briganti’s voice had been trackable to an attuned reader through the Times’ three-part critique of Carlson a year before his removal,” wrote Wolff.

Ah yes, the savvy Wolff — forever reverse-engineering large works of journalism. The attack on Briganti works squarely in the favor of Carlson, who wrote in internal messages that the comms executive “hates” the prime-time anchors — such that Carlson’s voice is trackable to an attuned reader of the excerpt. A New York Times spokesperson issued this statement: “The series was the product of in-depth interviews with dozens of sources, and the only ‘trackable’ voice was of the journalist who wrote it.” Fox News says that neither Wolff nor New York magazine contacted it for comment or for fact-checking.

He alleged some anomalous legal maneuvering by Fox Corp. as it sought to settle the suit from Dominion. To wrangle an agreement out of the company, Wolff claims, Fox offered a “sweetener”: The firing of host Sean Hannity. As the brinkmanship wore on, however, Fox switched out Hannity for Carlson. About a week after the settlement was announced, Carlson was dismissed.

Fox News and Dominion have pushed back against the idea that Carlson’s ouster was connected in any way to the Dominion settlement — a claim that appeared in media reports months ago. “Categorically false,” said Fox Corp.

When Fox News announced Carlson’s exit, it provided no explanation, leaving a vacuum for media reports accounting for the move. The New York Times reported that Fox executives discovered scandalous messages from Carlson in discovery materials from the Dominion case. Variety reported that Carlson spoke with a member of Fox Corp.’s board, who’d indicated that the ouster stemmed from the settlement. Whatever happened, Wolff musters no supporting evidence for his Hannity-Carlson “sweetener” version of events.

That version also serves the interests of Carlson, who loves nothing more than to blame his woes on corporate elites.

Though there are other unsubstantiated claims in the excerpt, the gist is clear: Wolff has relied on Carlson to mold the narrative and supply the supporting particulars.

What a choice! Carlson is a confessed liar famous for pumping misinformation into American politics. He has spread falsehoods about South Africa, covid-19, Jan. 6, Brazil, home appraisals, immigration and many other topics, including his own front door.

In response to multiple questions from the Erik Wemple Blog, New York magazine said it “undertook a careful review of the sourcing that Michael relied upon for all the reporting in the excerpt, working closely with both him and his fact-checker, in addition to independently corroborating the reporting when possible. We are fully satisfied with the level of verification that went into this story.”

Wolff issued this statement: “Was Tom Wolfe at the Bernsteins’ apartment that famous evening on Park Avenue, or not? We don’t know from the text. Nor does Wolfe tell us how he obtained the substantial verbatim dialogue he quotes in ‘Radical Chic.’ I don’t believe we needed to know that then or now to be entertained, informed, and enlightened by his essay, one of the models I’ve used for my own work.”

In a Post book review of “The Fall,” Justin Peters in a single passage acknowledged and blessed Wolff’s hackery: “Strangely, I don’t mind that I don’t know what to trust here. Since Fox News itself operates in the realm of loose innuendo, it feels somehow fitting that it must now contend with a book that plays by the network’s own rules.” Those words appeared to please Wolff, who tweeted, “I generally find most reviewers of my books live on a different planet from me, but Justin Peters, writing in the Washington Post is a neighbor.”

That different planet? It’s called Planet Journalism.

Erik Wemple, The Washington Post’s media critic, focuses on the cable-news industry. Before joining The Post, he ran a short-lived and much publicized local online news operation, and for eight years served as editor of Washington City Paper.

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