Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, and the question of when we get to say the hell with the rules | Bleader

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, and the question of when we get to say the hell with the rules

Posted By on 01.11.18 at 04:09 PM

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click to enlarge Michael Wolff, author of Fire and Fury - AP FILE PHOTO
  • AP file photo
  • Michael Wolff, author of Fire and Fury

There's a famous exchange in Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons between Thomas More, who is Henry VIII's lord chancellor, and William Roper, his son-in-law to be. More is refusing to sanction the king's marriage to Anne Boleyn, a stand that could (and will) cost him his life. Roper urges More to arrest a dangerous enemy who, inconveniently, has broken no laws.

"I know what's legal not what's right," More says. "And I'll stick to what's legal."

Says Roper, "So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!"

The scene continues:

Moore: Yes. What would y0u do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that.

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned around on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man's laws, not God's—and if you cut them down—and you're just the man to do it—d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. 

The scene is commonly cited as an exhibit of the kind of courage and principle there's too little of these days. Recent events suggest we've got it wrong. Maybe Roper's the one to admire.

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Case in point—Fire and Fury. More specifically, the defense of Fire and Fury argued by the journalist Marc Cooper. I'm going to quote from it at length because Cooper's argument flies in the face of journalism's holiest writ. Yet it's hard to disagree with.

Wolff clearly seduced, weaseled, confused and finagled his sources to get them yapping. Just as he should. Can he be trusted? Yes, even if some anecdotes cannot be verified and some sourcing is hazy. I have no idea, but here's my best guess about how Wolff got so much dirt. I SUSPECT that he was as ambiguous as possible with his sources as to what was and was not on the record. I'm OK with that. I teach that. Going off the record MUST be explicit and mutual otherwise it is fictional. When I talk to somebody who knows I am a reporter I do not say 'OK now we will start the interview.' I get them talking ASAP and unless agreed to otherwise it is ON the record. I also suspect, with no hard evidence, that in some cases Wolff consciously took explicitly off the record material and put it on the record. Tsk tsk.

Ten members of the Society of Professional Journalists and several ethics nannies at Poynter just passed out hearing this. But, I am going to be straight with you and proclaim that if Wolff burned some of his sources, as I suspect, I have ZERO problem—in this case.

This is an exceptional administration that requires extraordinary measures and treatment. Burning sources, IN THIS CASE, is outweighed by the public service of telling the whole truth about this gang of chicken-brained delusional incompetents armed with nuclear weapons. I don't give a flying fug if Wolff "betrayed the confidence" of Steve Bannon, or Steve Miller, or Dina Powell or Kelly Conway or Gary Cohn or Sam Nunberg or any other quisling lowlife that enables this monstrous man. Good for him. Unlike the Peter Bakers, the Maggie Habermans or the Robert Costas of the world, Wolff doesn't have to worry one minute about placating any of these assholes in order to keep beat access open and not be declared PNG by the ruling circle.

I want to be clear: when I taught interviewing as the art of seduction, I forcefully made it clear that there is always an ethical chalk line that should not be crossed (even if it is always not clear where that line was). I told them, do NOT cross the line once you have determined its whereabouts but when you come back to write your story there better goddamn be some chalk on the soles of your shoes as evidence that you at least came right up to the line and squeezed every drop out of your sources.

If I had been Wolff's editor, I would have said, in this case there is no line. Do whatever you have to bring back the real story. Democracy demands it. And that's what he did—though I hardly believe that was Wolff's civic commitment. But he DID perform an invaluable public service . . . 

William Roper would've approved. Do you? Don't ask me what I think. I'm still thinking.

But as to my second case in point, I put myself on Roper's side years ago. It's the saga of Alton Logan, an innocent man who spent 26 years in prison for the murder of a security guard in a McDonald's restaurant in 1982 even though the actual killer had admitted to the crime a few weeks after the murder. The problem was that Andrew Wilson, under arrest for the murder of two Chicago police officers, made the admission to his lawyers knowing their lips would be sealed by the dictates of the attorney-client privilege. Only after Wilson died in 2007, did the lawyers, Jamie Kunz and Dale Coventry, feel free to share what they knew with Logan's lawyers. Logan was freed several weeks later.

Daunted by their duty to Wilson, Kunz and Coventry in 1982 made but two concessions to Logan's plight. They wrote, signed, and had notarized a barely scrutable affidavit that said, "I have obtained information through privileged sources that a man named Alton Logan who was charged with the fatal shooting of Lloyd Wickliffe at on or about 11 Jan. 82 is in fact not responsible for that shooting that in fact another person was responsible." They put the affidavit in a lock box that they fortunately were able to retrieve 26 years later. (They had made no copies.) If Wilson outlived them, they counted on Coventry's daughter—an attorney who didn't know the affidavit existed—finding it and figuring it out.

(Two other attorneys who didn't represent Wilson but were tangentially involved in his case and knew about his admission also signed the affidavit.)

The second concession Kunz and Coventry made was to agree to speak up if Logan was sentenced to death. "I would have been prepared to lose my license," Kunz told me in 2008. "I wasn't going to let him be executed. It would have been an ethical lapse, but the execution I couldn't allow to happen."

The ethical lapse of allowing the execution of an innocent man was the only lapse that must be headed off! I suppose Thomas More could've followed Kunz on that one. But I'm guessing Roper would've cut down every cannot in the judicial code to free Logan and not felt a twinge.

Writing about the case in 2008, I commented: "Everyone knows the law's imperfect, but an imperfection that lets Alton Logan rot in prison when the truth would set him free is a profound flaw. It wouldn't have been permitted if he'd been on death row and forgive me for thinking it wouldn't have been permitted if he'd been somebody's cousin or frat brother. 'His life meant more to me than my license. I know that,' says Kunz. 'On the other hand, there are a lot of clients I've subsequently represented who'd be sorry if I didn't represent them. So I'm glad I kept my license.'"

In 2009, Harold Winston, who was Logan's postconviction attorney,  published a paper on the Logan case in the DePaul Journal for Social Justice. "No one should have to spend 26 years in jail and prison for a crime they did not commit," Winston posited reasonably, and he said hamstrung lawyers could be cut a little slack. He noted that Massachusetts's rules of professional conduct, unlike Illinois's, permit lawyers to speak up to "prevent the wrongful . . . incarceration of another."

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The other day I got an e-mail from Winston. He told me that last October Logan and a collaborator, Berl Falbaum, published a book with the blunt title Justice Failed: How "Legal Ethics" Kept Me in Prison For 26 Years. Winston said the book had been "ignored entirely by the Chicago media" and he felt it deserved some ink.

Of course it does. (The book's been reviewed beyond Chicago.) According to Justice Failed, Logan actually caught two lucky breaks. Wilson was only 55 when he died—what if he'd lived another 30 years? And he'd given his lawyers permission to tell the truth after he was dead. That got Kunz and Coventry out from under a 1998 Supreme Court ruling that attorney-client confidentiality even survives death.

The book recalls Logan telling 60 Minutes, "There is no difference between life in prison and a death penalty. None whatsoever. Both are a sentence of death." And Kunz disagreeing: "I can't explain it. I don't know why that [a death sentence] made a difference, but I know it did." In retrospect, the difference might be this: If the lawyers had said what they knew when they first knew it, Logan might've been exonerated in 1982 and freed. On the other hand, Wilson would've faced yet another murder charge. And he was the lawyers' client.

Here's a possible third case in point: Senator Dianne Feinstein releasing the full transcript of Glenn Simpson's closed-door testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee even though chairman Charles Grassley didn't give her permission to do it. President Trump called her "sneaky." So far, democracy is holding.

But all acts of defiance aren't equivalent. Our reward for whatever promises Michael Wolff might (or might not) have broken to get people talking is a harrowing picture of contempt, incompetence, and chaos in Donald Trump's White House. It's delighting millions of readers who already supposed this was pretty much the case. What's a fair price to pay to confirm our worst suspicions?

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