Michael Wolff’s High Cynicism

An atrocious column about The New York Times's News Corp. hacking scandal investigation.

The Times drops this amazing story last week digging into how a Rupert Murdoch tabloid illegally hacked telephones, including those of the royal family. We praised it here. Go read it if you haven’t yet—it’s well worth your time.

Michael Wolff liked it, too. He calls it “a rousing whodunit with many smoking guns.”

But Wolff being Wolff, he paints the piece as a Machiavellian power play by The New York Times rather than what it is: an obviously juicy story that any ambitious newspaper with the resources would go after.

The Times is striking back—though a little oddly (the Times can be brutal, but it likes to pretend it is much less brutal than it can be). Instead of using the paper to make its attack, it’s using the magazine—this is a clear choice for the Times. The pretense here is to try to make its attack on Murdoch less like a direct newsroom decision (although, likely, the cost of a three-man team in London did not come out of the magazine’s budget)—less like news, and more like a gee-wiz-keen story.

That’s more dumb than cynical—playing game theory with yourself. It’s what you do when you don’t have any sources. The Times wants some cover for its attack on Murdoch so it puts it in its own magazine rather than the newspaper? Some alibi! Who’s going to guess that The New York Times Magazine has something to do with The New York Times?

Wolff also slimes the investigative reporter Don Van Natta Jr. for no good reason:

Van Natta is a Times insider, loyalist, and gun, in ways similar to various Murdoch reporters who do Murdoch’s bidding, like Andy Coulson, the former editor of News of the World, and now Prime Minister David Cameron’s communications chief, or Steve Dunleavy, who, in the mid-1980s, investigated Warner’s chief Steve Ross during Murdoch’s efforts to take over the company. All newspapers have their hatchet guys.

Evidence? Van Natta wrote the Judy Miller piece a few years back. Seriously, that’s all Wolff “has” here. Pathetic.

And Wolff, just to show you how much he hates accountability journalism, takes a pit stop to crap on Woodward and Bernstein:

Still, just because you have ulterior motives (and some worry and guilt about your motives), doesn’t mean the story won’t stick. The Washington Post didn’t like Nixon—and because of that bad blood we got Watergate.
Hey, why not?

Finally, Wolff says, again with zero evidence, that the Times decided to pull up short, not tracing the coverup all the way to the top—just so it could hold a gun to Murdoch’s head. We’re left to suppose that if Murdoch pulls back the WSJ New York section or something, then the Times won’t let part two loose.

Let’s pull out Occam’s Razor here. First of all, the Times didn’t really stop at Andy Coulson, as Wolff asserts. It made Les Hinton (now CEO of Dow Jones) look pretty bad, too. But second, the more likely explanation is that it couldn’t get the goods from the C-suite.

This piece gives us more insight about the twisted worldview of Michael Wolff than it does about The New York Times.

This is one of the most cynical things I’ve read in a long time. It’s disgusting, frankly.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.