“Behind every great fortune is a great crime.” So Michael Wolff told the New York Times, paraphrasing Balzac in 2021, three years into becoming an overnight sensation after publishing his explosive tell-all documenting the dysfunctional world of Donald Trump’s White House.
Exposing “great crimes” has indeed become the MO of Wolff’s firebrand journalism, particularly in the later years of his career. It’s hard to overstate the impact of Fire and Fury, the book which prompted the then-president to threaten legal action, led to his estrangement from former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, and contained the uproarious claim that “100% of the people around [Trump]” believed he was unfit for office.
But even before the publication of Fire and Fury, which has now sold more than 4 million copies, the 70-year-old Manhattan-based journalist was infamous for the razor-sharp scythe of his prose and knack for top-rate gossip, often exasperating rival journalists with his scoops and charismatic storytelling.
And he has always had one common subject: powerful, egomaniacal, men. His hit list is astounding: ex-Fox chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein, Boris Johnson, Steve Bannon, and, of course, Donald Trump have all fallen foul to Wolff’s unforgiving pen.
Now, two sequels and five years on from the Trump fallout, Wolff has a new book, and a new man: Rupert Murdoch.
“I have been telling the story of the great power of Rupert Murdoch and Fox News for many years,” Wolff said, announcing his latest work, The Fall: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty. “This power is now reaching a natural end and The Fall brings the story to its closing act.”
Murdoch, 92, is the head of the right-wing media empire that kept close links to Trump throughout his turbulent rise to power and days in the White House. But Fox has seen a string of scandals in recent years, including reaching a $787.5m (£633m) settlement with Dominion Voting Systems over the broadcast of Trump’s lies about fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
As he attempts to rock the media boat once again, here is everything you need to know about Michael Wolff, the journalist taking on the most powerful men in the world.
‘I have wanted to control an empire’ — an ambitious early career
Raised in the suburbs of New Jersey, Wolff was the son of a journalist (his mother) and a father who worked in advertising. Despite his roots in the Garden State, it wasn’t long before Wolff was lured across the Hudson, graduating from Columbia University and going to work as a copy boy for the New York Times.
He was only his mid-twenties, practically fresh out of university, when his first book deal came along — a 1979 collection of essays titled White Kids — after which a publisher offered him a large sum of money to try his hand at writing a novel. But, after six years and a stint in Rome for inspiration, there was still no book.
In Wolff’s own telling, a friend of his who was on Wall Street at the time took him aside and said: “You are really an embarrassment. Come downtown. I will give you an office. You can make deals.”
Turning away from the world of prose and towards business, Wolff became friendly with a number of moguls in the 1980s and 1990s and, in 1991, he threw himself headfirst into entrepreneurship, setting up his own company. Wolff New Media published books about the confusing, new-fangled world of the Internet and, by the the mid-1990s, Wolff himself was worth $100 million.
“At various times, I have wanted to control an empire,” Wolff said in an interview with The Times in 2021. “But I have learned, when that feeling comes over me, to lie down.”
And indeed, his empire building never quite worked out. But when his business came crashing down with the 1997 global stock-market crash, Wolff did what he did best: he wrote about it. His memoir Burn Rate criticised the investors who had backed him, and became a bestseller, earning him a column in New York magazine and a regular table at Michael’s, the fabled Manhattan lunch spot for the media elite.
‘Thank your lucky stars he’s not writing about you’ — becoming a household name in the media
After the success of Burn Rate, Wolff was hired by New York magazine to write a weekly column. Over the next six years, he went on to write more than 300 columns focused on take-downs of various media personalities and business tycoons.
His writing saw him nominated for the National Magazine Award three times, winning twice, the second time for a series of columns he wrote from the media centre in the Persian Gulf as the Iraq War started in 2003.
After a stint as a weekly columnist for Vanity Fair in 2005, Wolff took his first step into the behind-the-scenes world of the big men of media, writing The Man Who Owns The News — a biography of Rupert Murdoch based on 50 hours of conversation with him and exclusive access to his family.
He was quickly becoming a household name in celebrity media, feared and revered in equal measure. A TV commercial promoting his column for USA TODAY showed an executive jumping out a window and yelling, “This is off the record!” rather than talking to him. “Read Michael Wolff,” the narrator said, “and thank your lucky stars he’s not writing about you.”
Sometimes, the tabloid headlines centred on Wolff himself, who became a consistent character on gossip websites and in the rumour mill. His personal life caused a minor scandal after his 2014 divorce, amid a relationship with a writer about 30 years his junior. (He and the writer, Victoria Floethe, now have a two-year-old daughter.)
During this time, Wolff also became friendly with another big media personality — Donald Trump. Years before his pivot into the world of politics, Trump enlisted Wolff to a cameo in a pilot that never aired for a Trump-branded reality-TV project, Trump Town Girls, a series which involved pitting beauty contestants against one another to sell real estate.
Fire and Fury — the book that shocked the nation
He may not have known it at the time, but it was this relationship with Trump which would eventually pave the way for Wolff’s magnum opus, Fire and Fury.
According to Wolff himself, when he approached Donald Trump about writing a book on his presidency, Trump agreed to give him access to the White House because of their pre-established friendship, and specifically because he liked an article Wolff wrote about him in June 2016 for The Hollywood Reporter. He was granted unprecedented daily access to the West Wing of the White House, taking up semi-permanent residence on a couch in the lobby and conducting research through “fly-on-the-wall” observations.
It painted a more extreme picture of Trump than anyone had seen before. Wolff conducted some 200 interviews with staffers, some on the record, explaining that the then most powerful man in the world had the mental acuity of a child, that he was “at best semi-literate”. It quoted a whole chorus of Trump’s inner circle agreeing that Trump was an idiot, unfit for office, and “dumb as shit”.
The criticism from President Trump, unsurprisingly, came thick and fast. The president’s lawyers sent cease and desist letters to the publisher and, on the eve of the book’s publication, Wolff and his publishers were still facing a legal effort by Trump to block publication. It only inspired them to rush the book forward.
“That was just theatrics. And I thought, ‘OK, no. This is going to help sell books.’ Which God knows it did,” he told The Times in 2021.
After Fire and Fury’s publication in 2018, Trump claimed that he had never authorised access for Wolff and never spoke to him for the book.
“Michael Wolff is a total loser who made up stories in order to sell this really boring and untruthful book,” he tweeted with barely-disguised rage.
The attacks weren’t just coming from the Trump camp, though. The book has come under sustained criticism, with some questioning Wolff’s version of events. Jake Tapper, of CNN, said that Fire and Fury, “should be met with skepticism” as it was “riddled with errors and rumours”, while Isaac Chotiner, in Slate, wrote that, “Wolff is not merely out of his depth — he frequently seems confused by even basic matters of political ideology.”
“The truth is every book has these kinds of mistakes but not every book rises to the level of an international political event,” Wolff said of the fact-checking critiques in a 2018 interview with the Guardian.
The Fall — “My long, white whale, Murdoch obsession finally comes to an end”
In the years that followed his sensational takedown, Wolff rode the Trump wave with two further books about the US president, Siege: Trump Under Fire (2019) and Landslide: The Final Days of the Trump Presidency (2021).
His most recent book, Too Famous: The Rich, the Powerful, the Wishful, the Notorious the Damned (2021), followed much the same trajectory, described by his publisher as a collection of profiles of “the major monsters, media whores and vainglorious figures of our time”.
But Wolff’s upcoming publication, The Fall, could certainly see him rock the media boat again.
On social media on Tuesday, invoking Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, Wolff wrote: “My long, white whale, Murdoch obsession finally comes to an end.”
He added: “At this very moment, people inside Fox, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and Murdoch HQ in London, are saying to one another, ‘Did you know about this? What’s he got, do you think?’”
The book comes during a humiliating and chaotic year for Murdoch’s media empire. Earlier this year, the 92-year-old billionaire was forced to spend $787.5m (£633m) to settle a defamation lawsuit brought against Fox News by Dominion Voting Systems, after Fox repeatedly aired the lie that Dominion had helped rig the 2020 election against Trump.
The following week saw the abrupt dismissal of Tucker Carlson, Fox’s biggest star and a kingmaker of the right-wing political movement in the US, stunning media and political circles alike. Media executives and insiders have said that the decision was probably the result of an accumulation of offences over several years.
In light of this, Wolff’s newest tell-all will certainly make an intriguing addition to the story.
The Fall: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty will be released on September 26