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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 04:00 PM ET, 09/21/2011

Suskind-Dunn dispute: A look inside

In the shoving match between the Obama White House and author Ron Suskind, Anita Dunn perhaps pushed the hardest. She’s a former White House communications director and plays a big evidentiary role in Suskind’s new and controversial book, “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President.”

The book addresses the issue of the White House’s boys-club feel, something that had been discussed in the press. With the help of on-the-record testimony from Dunn, however, Suskind moves the reporting into blasting range, making the case that Obama’s workplace was a hostile environment for women.

When that storyline emerged from early publicity on “Confidence Men,” Dunn objected. She claimed that the quote that Suskind had used to link her to the hostile-environment claim had been taken out of context. In making that charge, she joined a crowd.

Gripes about out-of-context quoting fly every day in media sniping. Here, an official in Africa claims “I was quoted out of context” on the question of an alleged travel ban. Here, a California entrepreneur says “I was quoted out of context in a recent article about the Planning Commission’s proposal to require conditional use permits for the temporary use of private properties for events of more than 25 people.” And here, some person says, “I was quoted out of context in the recent Celator article regarding distilled/deionized water.”

It’s potent stuff, in both directions: Quoting someone out of context can easily end up slandering that person and others. And accusing a journalist of quoting out of context can slander the poor little journalist. As my experience goes, the quote-out-of-context contention is the reflex response of people who committed the very human act of getting too truthful in an interview with a good reporter. Whatever their merits, the allegations often produce nothing but a standoff between the journalist and the subject, with both protesting that they have it right.

Unless there’s an available recording, in which case juicy fact-checking can take place. That’s the scenario that has unfolded over the past couple of days in the Suskind-Dunn clash. The Post arranged with Suskind to listen to his recordings and produced a story comparing the version of Dunn’s controversial quote as it appears in “Confidence Men” with the one on Suskind’s taped interview.

Interview:

“I remember once I told Valerie [Jarrett] that, I said if it weren’t for the president, this place would be in court for a hostile workplace. Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.”

In the book:

“But looking back,” recalled Anita Dunn, when asked about it nearly two years later, “this place would be in court for a hostile workplace... Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.”

Beatings have come Suskind’s way for the discrepancy between the recorded quote and the quote in the book. By taking out that preamble — “if it weren’t for the president” — Suskind appears to be twisting Dunn’s statement. That is, it’s plausible to interpret the full, original quote as Dunn suggesting that the president, through some series of superhuman gender-sensitivity interventions in White House corridors, tamped down the level of gender misbehavior in the workplace.

Not the proper interpretation: Dunn, according to Suskind, was simply saying that her loyalty — and that of others — to the president prevented anyone from ever going legal with their issues. Says Suskind: “She sort of said, ‘We just loved the guy.’ ” (Suskind points out that he inserted a sentence to that effect before the quote.)

The quote was originally uttered in a long telephone conversation in April. Once he had a manuscript in hand, in the summer, Suskind called Dunn back and explained what he was prepared to publish. Dunn was the one who took issue with the preamble — as it turns out, her husband was serving as White House counsel while she was communications director, and so she didn’t want to be making a comment about actionable conditions at the workplace given her husband’s role. So she petitioned Suskind to replace the preamble with the “looking back” treatment that’s now in print.

Maybe a better way to determine Dunn’s intent is to consider what she said in the moments before saying this controversial passage. In other words, what triggered her thought about having confided in Jarrett about the hostile workplace? “What preceded the quote was the discussion where she pointed out that senior officials were saying ‘f-you’ a lot to the women.” At that point, Suskind and Dunn agreed that it’s not 1970 anymore — then Dunn launched into her now-famous quote.

Dunn wouldn’t come on the phone to challenge Suskind’s version of events. An assistant said that the former communications director has said all she’ll say on this matter.

Perhaps that’s because she fears overstating her case, again. Last week, Dunn claimed in a Post interview that she’d told Suskind “point blank” that the White House wasn’t a hostile work environment. Nothing on the record supports such a contention. Dunn’s initial quote said pointedly that the White House fit all the legal requirements for such a designation; so does her amended quote.

Could she have been referring to yet another quote in that long April interview? Suskind says no way. “Nothing like that did she ever say to me,” he says.

The quote has some history behind it. As Suskind set out to report his book on the administration’s economic policies, he’d read about how the Obama White House had a gender problem. The New York Times’ Mark Leibovich, for instance, turned in a celebrated story about the fraternity atmosphere at 1600 Pennsylvania, under the headline: “Man’s World at White House? No Harm, No Foul, Aides Say.”

That headline pretty well captured Suskind’s idea of the problem as he launched his reporting for “Confidence Men.” As the interviews piled up, the author recalibrated his take on the divide. “I talked to various women involved and found that it was much deeper and more defining of the lives for the women than had been reported,” says Suskind.

Those are the preliminary findings that Suskind passed along to a senior White House official. Sympathetic to the women’s point of view, the official directed Suskind to speak with Dunn, who had left the White House for a consulting gig in town.

That’s the context that helps explain why Dunn was so forthcoming to Suskind: She would lend an authoritative and on-the-record voice to a lot of stuff he’d picked up. The author hastens to note that neither Dunn nor the anonymous White House official who made the referral was committing an act of insubordination. These officials were pleased that the president had taken steps to right the gender imbalance. “They felt that the president did step in here, and it was a management-teaching moment for him,” says Suskind.

Now on his fifth book, Suskind is schooled in the various forms of denial practiced by government officials upon a book release. And Dunn’s backlash has a singularity to it. “It wasn’t the traditional either fudging or dissembling or the non-denial denial or the famous Washington walkback,” says Suskind. Dunn’s words amounted to plain-languge combat, which forced Suskind to open his reporting to another news outlet, something he’s not happy to do. “My reporting has never been brought into any serious question, and frankly, I don’t think I need to prove the veracity of my reporting for anybody,” he says.

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