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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 12:52 PM ET, 10/10/2011

Joe McGinniss unconvincingly wraps himself in Bob Woodward’s cloak

Joe McGinniss is either tired of reviewers skewering him for reliance on anonymous sources or he just wants to prolong publicity for his book. Whichever is the case, he has placed an article in USA Today defending the reportorial integrity of his “The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin.”

After pointing out that prominent newspapers throughout the land rely heavily on unnamed sources, McGinniss goes polemical:

Why is anonymous sourcing OK in Washington or New York but not in Alaska, where the consequences of being quoted by name can be far more severe? In Alaska, people refuse to speak on the record about Palin for fear of losing their livelihoods, and threats of violence.
While researching the book in Alaska, I interviewed about 200 people. I quote more than 60 by name. By contrast, in their best-seller Game Change, published last year, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin relied almost exclusively on unnamed sources. They said, “In granting our sources anonymity . . . we were doing nothing novel; we were following in a tradition of countless esteemed non-fiction writers.”

In wrapping up, the author attempts some grand parallelism:

And let’s remember, without Deep Throat, there wouldn’t have been any Watergate hearings, and Richard Nixon would never have resigned.

McGinniss, you’re no Woodward.

Math tells the story: In instance after instance, McGinniss attaches salacious and often prurient “revelations” on a single anonymous source. As pointed out in a previous post, McGinniss used one unnamed “friend” of Palin’s to make this stunning allegation:

“It was me, Todd, Sarah, five or six other people, and Todd and Sarah had a fight, so Sarah was riding [on a snowmobile] with somebody else. The cocaine was free-flowing. Somebody found a fifty-five-gallon oil drum and turned it upside down and we were all doing cocaine lines off the top of the drum.”

Right there lies a great opportunity to go Woodwardian on this episode. You have a party of up to eight people who allegedly participated in the oil-drum snorting. Why not track down all of them and nail the item to the wall? McGinniss shows no evidence of having done any such thing — he merely talked to a blogger who’d passed along the gossip as well.

The same sourcing standard — if you want to call it that — undergirded this bit of irrelevancy:

Neither did Sarah find nourishment in the joy of sexual intimacy with her husband. “Todd complained a lot about never having sex with Sarah,” a friend of his tells me. “He’d say, ‘I must have gotten laid at least four times, ‘cause I got four kids.’ ”

Let’s put this question to Woodward himself: How many anonymous sources would you need, Bob, to print an allegation that a public figure withheld sex from spouse?

Woodward chuckles at the question then attempts a reply: “I mean, how do you get a source . . .” He’s not going there.

On the cocaine question, Woodward says, the reporting would go like this: “Jones told Smith on Feb. 22 he saw somebody using cocaine. In a case like that, I’d talk to Jones, Smith and the somebody.”

That’s a bit more thorough than McGinniss’s approach, which consists of taking notes from a single interview and steering it directly into the book.

If McGinniss really cares about the Woodward standard, he should look at the Woodward oeuvre, which is stacked with the sort of detail missing from McGinniss’s incriminating passages. Here’s page 17 of Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars,” in which the author discusses Gen. David H. Petraeus’s approach to overseas military commitments:

Petraeus told his closest aides that Afghanistan would be different from Iraq, where he had become the poster boy of the war. “I do not want to be the face of policy,” he told one aide. “They can’t dump it on me.” Petraeus later denied this was his intent. He just wanted to be “a good soldier,” as he put it, and keep a very low public profile.

Sure, there’s some anonymous sourcing in there, but it doesn’t feel anonymous. That’s because Woodward circled back to confirm the point, and the vetting process is laid out in plain sight. Though McGinniss couldn’t pull off the same trick with the Palins, who didn’t cooperate with the book, he still has no excuse for single-sourcing a host of serious allegations.

The core difference between these two anono-models is that Woodward uses anonymous sources to identify items that he can later corroborate via public records or interviews; McGinniss uses them to launder fun tidbits that keep people thumbing through his work.

“He’s hiding under an umbrella that I didn’t put up,” says Woodward.

By  |  12:52 PM ET, 10/10/2011

 
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