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The Blackhearted Ethos Of 'Game Change'

First Posted: 03/18/10 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 04:10 PM ET

Obama Reid

Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's "Game Change" is a soulless and dishonest work from the first paragraph of its "authors' note":

The idea for this book arose in the spring of 2008 out of a pair of firm convictions. The first was that the election we had both been following intensely for more than a year was as riveting and historic a spectacle as modern politics had ever produced. The second was that, despite wall-to-wall media coverage, much of the story behind the headlines had not been told.

I think it's important to note that these are not "convictions." The first is an entirely conventional and widely-expressed observation on the 2008 race made by everyone in the media.

The second is nothing more than a one-sentence distillation of this book's marketing campaign.

That said, the authors deserve credit for prominently stating the deeper ethos of their book right from the start. Right on the inside of the book jacket, a quote from Barack Obama, circa 2008, is there to greet the reader:

This shit would be really interesting if we weren't in the middle of it.

So: caveat lector! 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.

If the book has "convictions," they appear to be: IF YOU LET PEOPLE TALK SHIT ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE, FREE OF CONSEQUENCE, YOU CAN BE WELL PAID.

Naturally, in this consequence-free environment, "Game Change"'s sources unload. Bill Clinton is said to have indulged in "a sustained romantic relationship," with which Hillary Clinton's "war room within a war room" had to cope. (For some reason, Halperin and Heilemann extend this supposed paramour the privilege of protecting her identity.) "Rumors" step forward to give Cindy McCain a "long-term boyfriend" as well. And a host of unnamed John Edwards staffers unload on Elizabeth Edwards's inability to remain stoic whilst juggling terminal cancer and her husband's insane infidelities.

The providers of all of this grist are freed by the authors to indulge their basest, high-school desires. In fact, the authors seem to have kept every last source well protected -- save the one guy that everyone has been talking about ever since the book started leaking.

A major journalistic debate is currently raging over how seriously Halperin and Heilemann screwed Harry Reid. Reid has professed that he feels "burned" by the authors' use of his "Negro dialect" quote, but at the same time, he's confessed to being the source.

Here's the Reid statement that the whole world is chewing over:

[Reid] was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama -- a "light-skinned" African American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one," as he later put it privately.

In their book, Halperin and Heilemann establish a set of rules governing how things are attributed and what quotation marks are meant to convey in their authors' note:

Where dialogue is in quotation marks, it comes from the speaker, someone who was present and heard the remark, contemporaneous notes, or transcripts. Where dialogue is not in quotes, it is paraphrased, reflecting only a lack of certainty on the part of our sources about precise wording, not about the nature of the statements. Where specific thoughts, feelings, or states of mind are rendered in italics, they come from either the person identified or someone to whom she or he expressed those thoughts or feelings directly.

More perplexing "ground rules" were offered on MSNBC's "Morning Joe", where Heilemann said they had told sources "that [they wouldn't] identify any of our sources as the sources of the material." However, he added, "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."

I'm not sure how that's supposed to work! At what point does someone speaking on background suddenly transform into someone who's actively placing themselves inside a scene in an as-yet-unwritten book? And in this case, there's no evidence Reid ever said these words to anyone else, so the scene is actually the off-the-record interview itself! It's too charitable to simply call this shady.

In today's Politico, Mike Allen and Glenn Thrush write that Reid "chatted freely with the two disarmingly charming book authors who came to his office at the Capitol shortly after the 2008 election.... Reid wasn't on guard -- perhaps because he'd been told by his staff that the meeting would be "off the record," according to a person with knowledge of the exchange."

But then comes this bullshit:

In the second-guessing that followed, Capitol Hill veterans said there was no way that such inflammatory words from a Senate majority leader would remain off the record, even if that had been the arrangement.

So it's OK to violate a promise to a source -- as long as the quote is really juicy? That is just absurd. Imagine what Mark Halperin would say if a blogger made that argument.

As it happens, some bloggers have been calling for reporters to out their sources in certain cases -- not when their quote is particularly juicy, but rather when they've flat-out lied behind the cover of anonymity.

As Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald points out, it would sure be useful to know the anonymous sources who falsely claimed that the Christmas Crotchfire bomber bought a one-way ticket, who falsely claimed that released GITMO detainees were behind that attack, who falsely claimed that the recidivism rate of GITMO detainees is higher than it is in reality, who falsely claimed that important al Qaeda leaders were killed in airstrikes, and who formed the basis of erroneous reports about Iraq's non-existent WMD program, the heroics of Jessica Lynch, and the death of Pat Tillman. That's the thing about unnamed sources: protected from accountability, they tend to get things wrong and they tend to make things up.

"Game Change", we remind you, is chock-a-block with unnamed sources!

The reason for all this is simple. In journalistic circles, true currency doesn't come from holding people to account. What's treasured instead is the ability of a reporter to accrue a stable of well-placed sources that can make the individual reporter look like a real player among the elite media. Let's remember that all "Game Change" is 400 pages of two-year-old campaign gossip. THERE WERE PEOPLE ON CONFERENCE CALLS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT! And you are meant to be impressed with the reporters who amassed all of this stuff. Naturally, the stuff that gets the most attention is the anonymous venom.

I am honestly depressed to 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.

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