In the past week, media figures have routinely referred to a potential effort to pass a health care reform bill with a majority vote as an effort to "ram," "jam," or "cram" a bill through Congress, a characterization pushed by Republican politicians. The reconciliation process, which enables the Senate to pass legislation with 51 votes, has been used repeatedly by Republicans, including to pass major changes to health care laws.
According to New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt, Times columnist Maureen Dowd disputes much of what Game Change claims about her and David Geffen -- and says the book's authors, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, neither interviewed her nor checked all of their facts with her:
According to "Game Change," Dowd persuaded Geffen to give her an interview by telling him that, when it was over, if he did not want her to use it, she would not. She read the finished column to Geffen, the book said, warned him it would be explosive and asked if he wanted to take back anything. If true, Dowd would, in effect, have surrendered editorial control to her source, an unacceptable situation.
The book also implied that Dowd attended a private $2,300-per-person Obama fund-raiser the following night. Afterward, it said, she was among a small group of 35 who "repaired to Geffen's mansion" for a dinner for the Obamas.
Dowd said it didn't happen that way. "I never gave David Geffen veto power over the column," she said. She said she did not read the column to him, warn him that it would be explosive or ask if he wanted to take back his words, and she did not attend the Hollywood fund-raising event at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. She was a guest at the dinner later, she said, although the candidate's camp sought to have her barred.
Dowd said that, as is often her practice, she told Geffen which quotes she was using and checked them for accuracy and context. He had been unsure whether he wanted to say some of the things he told her but agreed to all of it, she said.
Geffen, who did not want to get embroiled in a controversy among journalists, would only say: "I don't think anyone imagines Maureen would allow anyone to edit her column. I certainly didn't."
Dowd said the authors did not interview her for the book but that Halperin called at some point to "check a few - but not all - of the details."
* The convoluted sourcing rules used by Halperin & Heilemann, in particular their bizarre explanation of how they came to quote Harry Reid, have inspired the derisive phrases "Halperin background" and "Halperin deep background." It may be time for "Halperin facts" -- things that might be true, but require blind faith in Mark Halperin.
Boston College professor Alan Wolfe reviews Game Change for the Washington Post:
John Heilemann, national political correspondent for New York magazine, and Mark Halperin, editor at large for Time, have been subject to some pretty harsh judgments of their coverage. Both are members in good standing of the "Village," the derisive term widely used in the blogosphere to convey what critics see as the insular and complacent quality of mainstream journalism.
The lefty bloggers' basic complaint is that the Washington press corps deals in trivia, reflects conventional wisdom and is all too respectful of the politicians it should be challenging. "Game Change," the new book by Heilemann and Halperin, offers this reviewer a chance to judge the judgers: Are the bloggers on to something, or are they just jealous of the fact that inside-the-Beltway journalists such as Heilemann and Halperin are quite skillful?
"Game Change" inadvertently confirms just how many of our top political journalists really are Villagers. ... For one thing, Heilemann and Halperin write about the campaign as if they were not active participants in shaping it.
Heilemann and Halperin also purvey a lot of material in stenographic fashion, which only feeds into the complaints of their critics.
[W]hile the authors of "Game Change" have much to say about John McCain's dreadful response to the economic crisis, they shy away from any discussion of economics. Nor would one know, after reading this book, that the biggest task facing the winner of the election would be cleaning up the mess left by the people on the way out. To talk about real historical significance would mean addressing matters of substance, and that would violate the chatty inside-dope approach that characterizes Village journalism.
I read the bloggers and, while I admire their energy and commitment, I often find their near-hysteria off-putting. When they write about the Villagers, I detect, if not jealousy, then smugness, as if they believe they could do a better job than the journalists who take home the big bucks. As someone who grew up reading great political reporting, even the kind that produced the classic campaign books of previous years, I wish that all those who scoff about insular and un-self-critical Villagers would be proven wrong. It is too bad that Heilemann and Halperin have proved them, by and large, right.
Last week, Bob Franken led the charge in criticizing the sourcing rules Mark Halperin and John Heilemann devised for Game Change, calling their explanation of those rules "the most convoluted explanation I've heard in a long time" and adding: "There's one thing that you have to remember in Washington: You don't burn sources."
Now Washington Post/CNN media critic Howard Kurtz joins in:
"Game Change" caused an immediate furor by quoting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as having said "privately" that Obama could win the presidency because he was "light-skinned" and had "no Negro dialect." Reid apologized for the clumsy remarks, which his office confirmed he made to Halperin and Heilemann. But even with their source admitting the conversation, the authors refuse to confirm that they interviewed Reid. It's not "in the public interest," Halperin argues, for them to "get on the slippery slope" of acknowledging interviews.
Deep background means that you can describe someone's thinking or reconstruct verbatim dialogue when you're writing about events involving that person. As an author who has used the technique, I don't believe it entitles you to directly quote what someone said to you, which effectively puts it on the record, and several other journalists have said they agree.
I have not, however, seen a single journalist offer an unqualified defense of the sourcing techniques Halperin and Heilemann used. If anyone has an example, please let me know in the comments.
UPDATE: A reader points out that in an article by Politico's Michael Calderone, several journalists -- including Bob Woodward and Jonathan Alter -- broadly defended the use of anonymous sources. None, however, defended Halperin/Heilemann's treatment of the Reid quote, or the specifics of the way Game Change relied upon unnamed sources.
Mark Halperin defends the sourcing practices he and John Heilemann used for their book Game Change:
To be sure, Time's Mark Halperin and New York Magazine's John Heilemann had the advantage of reconstructing the events after the fact, aided by operatives who were given a cloak of anonymity to dish and perhaps settle scores.
"One of the things people have said is that we've let the losers write the history, we've relied on people with axes to grind," Halperin says. "We were so careful, so cautious in our sourcing. You won't see a negative portrait, a negative description that relies simply on a person with an ax to grind."
That's what counts as being "so cautious in our sourcing" these days? Not relying on a single unnamed source with a vendetta? Quick, somebody give these guys an award!
If there's a silver lining to the dark cloud that is Game Change, it's that the nastiest campaign gossip book in years has inspired several amusing and creative denunciations of the both book and its authors, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann.
Don Imus, for example, referred to it as "a 450-page version of Page Six," according to Halperin.
The Huffington Post's Jason Linkins -- who notes of the authors' sourcing rules: "It's too charitable to simply call this shady" -- adds:
What you will get from this tome is the experience of being dragged through a great, teeming, gossipy Superfund-sized pile of shit, lovingly accumulated by two authors who have basically allowed anyone willing to offer nasty hearsay, trash-talk, or score-settling to dump away.
It's all in the service of utter, black venality. I am honestly depressed to be have so much of this book yet to read. My only comfort is that I wasn't the one who chose to masticate, digest, and regurgitate this shit in the first place.
There is nothing in the book that will deepen your understanding of the information beyond what others regurgitate about it. In fact, it's possible that actually READING the book will make you dumber. You certainly will learn more about how Washington works from reading what people say about the book than from the book itself.
(And, bonus Ana Marie Cox: "Washington has a scab. Game Change is the horrible oozing infection that comes after you pick at it.")
Bob Franken, on H/H explanation of the ground rules they used for interviews:
That's the most convoluted explanation I've heard in a long time. There's one thing that you have to remember in Washington: You don't burn sources. You don't burn them not because it's the right thing to do, it's because you don't get any information the next time around. And I really believe that what we might see is that these guys are not going to be welcome when they're talking to different people who might provide them information in the future.
[I]f the authors were concerned with accuracy they might have checked their reporting with people on the Vice President's staff. They did not.
(Ok, that one isn't all that amusing -- until you remember that Carney worked with Halperin at Time before joining Vice President Biden't staff.)
A book based on backstabbing gossip from disgruntled campaign aides and pissed off rivals is about as reliable a six year olds playing a game of telephone. When you combine these nasty little tidbits with the Villager sensibility and biases of the writers, you end up with a docu-drama rather than a work of non-fiction.
I'm sure Heilemann and Halperin are very proud to be the top, tabloid journalists in the country providing much shaudenfreude for the Villagers and entertainment for everyone else. They'll sell a lot of books
it's human nature to like mean, nasty gossip
and this one looks like it gives TMZ a run for its money.
Notably, the Edwards scandal was relentlessly pursued and first "broken" by The National Enquirer, and I defy anyone to read the book excerpt on Edwards (to the extent you can even get through it) and identify any differences between the book's tone, content and "reporting" methods and those found in the Enquirer.
Just when you think the news cycle can't get any stupider, Mark Halperin publishes a book.
But perhaps the most damning reaction to Game Change is this: Politico ran at least 16 articles and blog posts about the book before it had been in book stores for 48 hours.
From the January 12 edition of Fox Business' Imus in the Morning
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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.
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.
Mark Halperin & John Heilemann explain their approach to interviews for Game Change, amid suggestions that they broke their ground rules in quoting Harry Reid:
As a chagrined Reid telephoned political allies in the Senate and civil rights community to shore up his support this weekend, he made it clear that he felt burned by the authors.
In the book's"Authors' Note," they wrote: "All of our interviews - from those with junior staffers to those with the candidates themselves - were conducted on a 'deep background' basis, which means we agreed not to identify the subjects as sources in any way. We believed this was essential to eliciting the level of candor on which a book of this sort depends."
Heilemann said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe": "We had a very clear agreement with all those sources that our interviews would be on deep background. ... Our ground rules are ... that we won't identify any of our sources as the sources of the material. But we said to them all very clearly that if they put themselves in scenes of the book, if they were uttering dialogue to people in the book in part of a scene, that we would identify them as the utterer of those words."
Halperin added: "There's no one we talked to for the book who we burned in any way, or violated any agreement with."
I really have no idea what that bolded part means. Among other problems: How could an interviewee put himself in scenes of a book that had not yet been written? Obviously, he couldn't. The only person who can put an interviewee in a scene of a book is the book's author -- that's the person who decides what the scenes are.
And I'm not alone in being baffled by that explanation. Moments ago, veteran journalist Bob Franken responded on MSNBC:
"That's the most convoluted explanation I've heard in a long time. There's one thing that you have to remember in Washington: You don't burn sources. You don't burn them not because it's the right thing to do, it's because you don't get any information the next time around. And I really believe that what we might see is that these guys are not going to be welcome when they're talking to different people who might provide them information in the future."
Silver Spring, MD: It is my understanding that Sen Reid's remark was made almost two years ago, with reporters present. If true, why is it that this wasn't newsworthy then, but it is now?
Ben Pershing: Reid didn't make the comments in some public venue, he made it to these two authors who were working on their book and obviously wanted to save it for the book. The more interesting question, just from a reportorial perspective. is whether Reid thought the comments were off the record. The two authors -- Mark Halperin and John Heilemann -- have tried to explain how they were able to conduct their interviews on "deep background" but still name Reid as making these comments. I'm not sure if I understand their explanation.
And now, a special guest commentary on Game Change, the new book about the 2008 presidential election by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann:
For most of my time covering presidential elections, I shared the view that there was a direct correlation between the skills needed to be a great candidate and a great president. The chaotic and demanding requirements of running for president, I felt, were a perfect test for the toughest job in the world.
But now I think I was wrong. The "campaigner equals leader" formula that inspired me and so many others in the news media is flawed.
[W]hat do those of us who cover politics do now?
Well, we pause, take a deep breath and resist. At least sometimes. In the face of polls and horse-race maneuvering, we can try to keep from getting sucked in by it all. We should examine a candidate's public record and full life as opposed to his or her campaign performance. But what might appear simple to a voter can, I know, seem hard for a journalist.
If past is prologue, the winners of the major-party nominations will be those who demonstrate they have what it takes to win. But in the short time remaining voters and journalists alike should be focused on a deeper question: Do the candidates have what it takes to fill the most difficult job in the world?
Oh, wait: I'm sorry. That isn't a commentary about Game Change. That's from an op-ed published by the New York Times on November 25, 2007. The author? Mark Halperin.
(Ana Marie Cox has found another example of Halperin violating his own prescriptions for better journalism.)
On page 218 of their book Game Change, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin write:
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.
Note the lack of quote marks around the statement attributed to Clinton. That means it's a paraphrase, not a direct quote. That means that Heilemann and Halperin did not or could not verify that Clinton said those exact words -- their source is not Kennedy or Clinton, but someone else who was supposedly aware of a later, alleged conversation between Kennedy and a "friend." As The Plum Line's Greg Sargent points out, the authors do indeed admit in their book: "Where dialog is not in quotes, it is paraphrased, reflecting only a lack of certainly on the part of our sources about precise wording, not about the nature of the statements."
As Sargent notes, Clinton may have said something along those lines, but: "In cases like these, when people are hinting at racism, the precise wording is everything. And in this case, the whole claim is based on an anonymous source's recollection that someone who has now passed away told him or her that Clinton said something like this."
So why are news organizations treating this as an exact, direct quote?
"A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee," the former president told the liberal lion from Massachusetts, according to the gossipy new campaign book, "Game Change."
"A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee," Clinton told Kennedy, according to the book -- a comment that angered Kennedy, who later endorsed Obama.
When powerful Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) was in the process of deciding which fellow Democrat to endorse, former President Bill Clinton reportedly made disparaging, apparently race-based remarks about Mr. Obama, commenting, "A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee."
In a phone call in which he tried to get the late Ted Kennedy's endorsement for Hillary Clinton's campaign, the former president said of Obama. "A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee." The book says the remark left Kennedy "fuming" and may have pushed him into the Obama camp.
From the January 11 edition of MSNBC's The Dylan Ratigan Show:
You'd expect right-wing websites to make ignore the fact that Clinton's statement is a paraphrase and not a quote -- Fox Nation, for example, was quick to oblige. Shouldn't the "mainstream media" have higher journalistic standards than Fox Nation?
Greg Sargent gets a comment from Jay Carney, Vice President Biden's communications director, about a new book's claims that Biden and President Obama had a strained relationship:
We aren't going to comment on rehashed rumors about the campaign. But I can say that if the authors were concerned with accuracy they might have checked their reporting with people on the Vice President's staff. They did not. I can also say that the President and Vice President have worked together very closely and successfully this past year.
It's worth keeping in mind that the book in question is co-authored by Mark Halperin, an editor-at-large at Time magazine -- where he worked with Carney, who served as Time's Washington bureau chief before going to work for Biden.
Also worth keeping in mind: concern for accuracy is not among Halperin's strong points:
Halperin says (repeatedly) that President Obama was the one who failed to seek bipartisan agreement. That is the exact opposite of what happened. This is not a matter of interpretation; it is a matter of clear facts. The Republican proposal consisted entirely of tax cuts. That happened. It's a fact. The Democratic stimulus package included a mix of tax cuts and spending. That happened. It's a fact. When Mark Halperin says it was Obama and the Democrats who refused to seek bipartisan agreement, he is demonstrating that he is either so woefully uninformed about basic facts or so blatantly dishonest that, in either case, he cannot be taken seriously.
Matthew Yglesias makes fun of Mark Halperin's complaints that Barack Obama hasn't succeeded in "Wooing Official Washington":
If a failure to woo "official Washington" is one of the major failings of an administration, then I'd say the administration is doing pretty well. Especially because if you read the item, it's clear that by "official Washington" Halperin means something like "my friends" rather than anything actually "official"
The people I know who work in the administration, though by no means "top aides," generally seem quite busy. They're trying to govern the country under difficult circumstances! And I think the public will generally sleep easily knowing that more time is being put into policies aimed at improving people's lives than on hankering for the "establishment seal of approval."
Yglesias is right on the merits, of course. But we shouldn't simply ignore Halperin's hurt feelings; this is the kind of idiocy that contributed to the elite media's hatred of the Clintons:
Actually, it could be said that Sally Quinn has been floundering around for the last couple of decades, when she failed first as a journalist, then as a novelist, before emerging as a hostess in a Washington society that even she admits is in its death throes. Which brings us to a central question: Who appointed Quinn as the mouthpiece for the permanent Washington establishment, if there is such an animal? A peek into Quinn's motives reveals a hidden political agenda and the venom of a hostess scorned, and ultimately, an aging semi-journalist propped up by a cadre of media buddies, carping at the Clintons because they wouldn't kiss her ring.
According to society sources, Sally invited Hillary to a luncheon when the Clintons came to town in 1993. Sally stocked her guest list with her best buddies and prepared to usher the first lady into the capital's social whirl. Apparently, Hillary didn't accept. Miffed, Sally wrote a catty piece in the Post about Mrs. Clinton. Hillary made sure that Quinn rarely made it into the White House dinners or social events.
In return, Sally started talking trash about Hillary to her buddies, and her animus became a staple of the social scene. "There's just something about her that pisses people off," Quinn is quoted as saying in a New Yorker article about Hillary.
Oh, and just this morning the Washington Post ran a column by that same Sally Quinn. She has had enough, and demands the resignation of the White House social secretary. Then again, Quinn just knew all along Desiree Rogers wasn't right for the job:
White House social secretary Desirée Rogers came under fire after the Salahi scandal erupted. From the start, Rogers was an unlikely choice for social secretary. She was not of Washington, considered by many too high-powered for the job and more interested in being a public figure (and thus upstaging the first lady) than in doing the gritty, behind-the-scenes work inherent in that position.
A couple of days ago, I noted that Mark Halperin's idiotic portrayal of Sen. Mary Landrieu as having semen in her hair hadn't drawn as much attention and criticism as you might expect -- particularly given the widespread media attention that greeted Newsweek's use of a photo in which Sarah Palin posed for in a running suit.
Here's an example: Washington Post/CNN media critic Howard Kurtz addressed the Palin photo controversy on the November 22 broadcast of CNN's Reliable Sources.
Oh, yeah -- Mark Halperin works for Time magazine, whose web site hosted his offensive doctored photo of Sen. Landrieu. Time and CNN are corporate siblings.
(H/T: News Corpse)
Maybe you thought that the recent outrage from the right over Newsweek's use of a photo of Sarah Palin in a running outfit meant conservatives are finally coming to understand that sexism has no place in the news media. And maybe you thought all the attention the mainstream media paid to the controversy was a sign that they, too, are beginning to see the light -- and not simply another example of them asking conservative media critics how high they should jump. Well, if you thought that, you'd be wrong.
Take, for example, Newsbusters. The right-wing media critics were all over the Newsweek/Palin controversy. But they haven't said a word about Mark Halperin doctoring a photo to portray Mary Landrieu as having semen in her hair.
But Newsbusters certainly isn't alone in ignoring Halperin's vicious portrayal of Landrieu. Do a Nexis search for news reports containing the words "Halperin" and "Landrieu" in the past week, and you'll get exactly one result: a blog post by Michael Tomasky. And this comes immediately after the media uproar over the Newsweek Palin cover.
Now, you might think the difference in attention is because Newsweek made the mistake of putting the photo of Palin on its cover, while Halperin's photoshop of Landrieu appeared only on Time's web page. On the other hand, Newsweek used a photo Sarah Palin voluntarily posed for in order to promote herself, whereas Halperin doctored a photo of Mary Landrieu to make it look like she had semen in her hair. So, let's call it even, shall we?
And, no, the disparity can't be explained by the fact that Beltway journalists love Mark Halperin, creator of ABC's insider gossip sheet The Note. Glenn Beck called Mary Landrieu a prostitute, and the media didn't give a damn. And when I say Beck called Mary Landrieu a prostitute, I don't mean that he hinted that Landrieu might do legislative favors in exchange for campaign cash. I mean he literally called her a "prostitute."
Progressive political figures like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi have been on the receiving end of sexist media treatment for years, and conservative media critics like Newsbusters don't give a damn. Nor does much of the mainstream media. The lesson? Newsweek's treatment of Sarah Palin was, indeed, sexist -- but many of those who criticized it don't really care about sexism in the media. They care that a Republican was the target, and that Republicans were upset.