Accuracy in Media

Time’s Mark Halperin and New York Magazine’s John Heilemann’s new book ‘Game Change’ has caused enough of a ruckus that the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz wondered why they didn’t interview the candidates.

From the Washington Post

In the final weeks of the presidential campaign, we are now told, Barack Obama and his team grew so furious at Joe Biden’s repeated gaffes that “not only was Biden kept off Obama’s nightly campaign conference call, he wasn’t even told it existed.”

The running mate was so frustrated with how he was being handled — especially when “his access to the press was severely limited” — that he questioned new staffers on whether they were loyal to him or the Chicago gang. And after one particularly damaging blunder, “Obama phoned Biden and laid into him.”

These passages, from the new book “Game Change,” are at odds with the smoothly functioning Obama machine depicted by much of the media. What’s more, the book contains so much reporting of behind-the-scenes screaming and ugliness as to raise questions about whether journalists missed — or were misled about — much of what transpired in 2008.

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.”

Within John McCain’s campaign, Heilemann says, “there were people who didn’t like Sarah Palin. We also talked to Sarah Palin loyalists.”

The book’s technique — omniscient narrative — is hardly new, and Halperin and Heilemann are veteran scribes who have known their political sources for years. But didn’t they have a responsibility to ask the former candidates for comment?

Jay Carney, a spokesman for Biden, says that “if the authors were concerned with accuracy, they might have checked their reporting with members of the vice president’s staff or sought to check it with the vice president himself. They did not.” He says the book, “perhaps unintentionally,” leaves readers with “the gross misimpression” of lingering tension between the two men.

Halperin calls that “a fundamentally false charge.” Adds Heilemann: “Jay’s perfectly aware we talked to many people in the vice president’s office.”

‘Background’ bonanza

The book, which had its debut on “60 Minutes,” relies on interviews with more than 200 people conducted on “deep background,” meaning the information could be used without identifying the sources. This enables the authors to describe unvarnished versions of heated and often profane arguments involving the candidates and their staffs, but it is also a recurring weakness. The most cooperative sources may have gotten to spin the narrative their way, and no one — such as Steve Schmidt, the former McCain aide who has publicly criticized Palin — was pressed to be on the record.

After watching what was depicted as Hillary Clinton’s befuddled reaction to losing the Iowa caucuses, one unnamed Clinton lieutenant is quoted as having said: “This woman shouldn’t be president.” This seems unfair, since readers have no way to evaluate the person’s motivation. Could it have been Patti Solis Doyle, whose thoughts are sometimes quoted — and who was fired as campaign manager? Halperin says it was a senior adviser whose reaction typified the shock that Clinton aides felt about the candidate’s behavior.

“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.

Still, the depth of the reporting here captures the craziness of campaigning in a more textured way than most contemporaneous accounts. What some critics dismiss as mere gossip — Clinton saying that Obama had “a lot of nerve” to touch her shoulder during a tense tarmac meeting — reveals something about the personal nature of the fight. That includes outright duplicity, such as Clinton’s reaction when one of her national co-chairs raised Obama’s past drug use — “Let’s push it out!” she said — even as her campaign disavowed the attack.

The timing of the books’ release couldn’t have been worse for the Democrats as it paints a picture of dysfunction and argument heretofore unkown during the 2008 campaign just as the party is struggling after a brusing battle on health care and recent losses in gubenatorialraces in New Jersey and Virginia. 

This certainly won’t be the last word about the 2008 campaign but ir may serve as a precursor to future commentary on the elections in November.

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