The Village doesn't care about sources

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

The Village was cooing last night over "Game over: The Clintons stand alone," the speculative and gloating hit on the Clintons by Politico's Ben Smith.

Smith breathlessly recounts claims about the Clintons that first appeared in Mark Halperin's new book Game Change, then takes a sneering ha-ha-nobody-likes-the-Clintons tone in noting the purported lack of Clinton loyalists contesting the book's claims.

Now, there's another pretty obvious possible explanation for the lack of an aggressive high-profile response to the book by the Clintons and their former staff. As John Aravosis -- who, if memory serves, did not take a favorable view of Clinton during the presidential primaries -- explains:

I think, rather, that Hillary is being a good Secretary of State. ... I think the lack of response from Team Clinton on this book is because she doesn't want to be a distraction for the President. And if that's the case, she deserves credit.

Now, I don't know if Aravosis is right, or if Smith is. Don't really care, either. But it is striking that Smith never even considers the possibility that "Team Clinton" is laying low for the reason Aravosis suggests. It suggests a tunnel vision on Smith's part, and an eagerness to portray the Clintons as adrift and alone.

And, like I said, The Village ate it up. The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza calls it "terrific." ABC's Rick Klein and Politico's Jonathan Martin hyped it, too.

One passage in Smith's article was particularly striking to me (emphasis added):

Finally, the depiction of candidate Clinton in "Game Change" suggests that her competitiveness sometimes expressed itself as consuming suspicion.

"I am convinced they also imported people into those caucuses," she reportedly told Penn a month after her concession. In that conversation, which the authors appear to have obtained from a tape-recording or transcript, she reporteldly gave Penn a particularly self-serving assignment:

I want you to start thinking about how I avoid being blamed [for Obama's possible defeat]", Clinton said. "Because I shouldn't be blamed. But they are going to blame me. I somehow didn't do enough."

What's interesting about this passage isn't the substance of Clinton's purported comments. I mean, who really cares if Clinton asked Mark Penn to think about how she could avoid being blamed for an Obama general-election loss? What's remarkable about that?

No, what's interesting is Smith's description of the book's sourcing for the comment. Think about it for a minute: Ben Smith can't tell whether the authors got the quote from a tape-recording or a transcript. That speaks volumes about the authors' shiftiness in describing their sourcing. There's a huge difference between having recordings and having a transcript. If it was a transcript, that would raise all kinds of questions about who produced it and when and how accurate it was.

It says something about the authors that they were ambiguous about which it was, recording or transcript. Just as it says something about them that the source of the famous Clinton/coffee quote isn't described in any way whatsoever:

But Bill [Clinton] then went on, belittling Obama in a manner that deeply offended Kennedy. Recounting the conversation later to a friend, Teddy fumed that Clinton had said, A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.

Quick: who's the source of that quote? The Kennedy friend, right? That's what a lot of people have assumed. But read it again: Halperin & Heilemann don't actually say the Kennedy friend was their source. Their source could have been a friend of the friend. Or the friend's gardener. Or the friend's cousin's roommate's high school girlfriend's uncle. We have no idea.

That's bad enough. What's worse is that Halperin and Heilemann's writing is either sloppy or disingenuous enough that it leads the reader to assumptions about the sourcing -- the Kennedy friend; the tape-recording -- that, for whatever reason, the authors don't come out and confirm. They imply sourcing that is stronger than they are willing to assert.

That, to me, is a clear sign of a book -- of authors -- that cannot be trusted. Yet it apparently didn't raise any red flags for Smith, or Cillizza, or the other journalists who have been raving about Smith's piece. And that speaks volumes about the state of political journalism.

UPDATE: Greg Sargent weighs in:

what's mystifying is that virtually none of the media figures lavishing attention on this book have broached the sourcing issue, something you'd think would merit a bit of discussion among professional journalists. Discussion of this has been left almost entirely to bloggers.

The Politico
Mark Halperin, Ben Smith, John Heilemann
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.