'Game Change': Howard Kurtz on background sourcing issues

Game Changers? John Heilemann, left, and Mark Halperin defend their reporting techniques.
Game Changers? John Heilemann, left, and Mark Halperin defend their reporting techniques. (Christopher Anderson)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 18, 2010

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.

In some cases, such as the bitter infighting between McCain aides and Palin, the book adds detail to what long ago leaked to the press. Former McCain advisers Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace, who obviously served as sources, found that Palin's "concept of rudimentary facts and concepts was minimal. Palin couldn't explain why North and South Korea were separate nations. She didn't know what the Fed did." In a screaming match after the disastrous Katie Couric interview, "Wallace could barely fathom Palin's hissy fit." But is it fair to cite unnamed aides as wondering if Palin "was mentally unstable"?

The reporting on John and Elizabeth Edwards provides the starkest contrast between public smiles and private hell. The book depicts the former senator as a self-absorbed egomaniac who fired a staffer for questioning whether he was having an affair with videographer Rielle Hunter. And the authors are especially harsh on what they call "the lie of Saint Elizabeth," saying the candidate's cancer-stricken wife was seen by insiders as "an abusive, intrusive, paranoid, condescending crazywoman." They describe her as ridiculing John as a "hick" and, in a scene in an airport parking lot, tearing off her blouse and wailing to her husband, "Look at me!"

Either journalists were unaware of this backstage animosity or some of them, sympathetic to the ailing Elizabeth, looked the other way.

The real Obama?

The authors peel back the curtain a bit on Obamaland, quoting the candidate as telling his staff after the McCain camp accused him of playing the race card: "You guys are trying to pretend I'm not black. I'm black!" But Obama is the one candidate in "Game Change" who most closely resembles his public persona. During the Rev. Jeremiah Wright uproar, his performance -- "calm, methodical, precise and strategic -- impressed his team immensely," with strategists Anita Dunn thinking "this is a guy I want in a foxhole with me" and David Axelrod being "blown away" by Obama's writing of a major address on race.

Perhaps Obama's character is unusually consistent. But the portrait may also reflect the fact that aides on a winning campaign had little dirt to dish and even less incentive, since many of them are now running the country.

Throughout the book, many of the hired guns who were paid to tell reporters how swimmingly everything was going in 2007 and 2008 are now, in effect, admitting their previous dissembling without their names attached. In the most obsessively covered campaign in history, journalists -- including the authors -- had a blurry view at best.

"We would sit with people and things would pop out of their mouths that astonished us on a regular basis," Heilemann says. "You realize that during the campaign we were walking around with paper bags over our heads."

Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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