Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Blackhearted Ethos Of Game Change [O.P.M. Version]

Every child who grew up during the post-atomic era learned that Mother Nature allows for a cruel denouement in the event of the nuclear-enabled mutually-assured destruction of civilization: after every patch of the earth is scorched, only the coprophages shall remain. As I wade further and further into Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's Game Change, and absorb the reporting on the book that I am all but certain shall inevitable render the reading of same as superfluous, it seems pretty clear those same coprophages will have a practiceable model of journalism to follow in the aftermath of the apocalypse.

I quite literally snorted at the first paragraph of this book, which kicks off the "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 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 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. When one opens the cover for the first time, 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 out to a great, teeming, gossipy Superfund cite of a shitpile, enabled by two authors that have basically allowed anyone willing to offer a juicy put of hearsay, trash-talk, or score-settling to pile on, under the promise that once you are knee-deep in this open-air latrine, it will get interesting. 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 "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 to 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' 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 seems to have kept everyone well protected, save the one guy that everyone has been talking about ever since the book got leaked.

The current journalistic debate -- outside of observers such as Glenn Greenwald who take issue with this whole enterprise -- is a small-bore matter, pertaining to whether or not Halperin and Heilemann jacked Harry Reid. Questions have arisen as to whether or not Reid's "Negro dialect" remark was intended for attribution, or offered up on background. Reid has professed that he feels "burned" by the authors, but at the same time, he's confessed to being the source. 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 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.


I'm not sure I can fully dispense with all of that without first staging a week-long encounter session with the Poynter Institute, but suffice it to say, by the authors' own rules, every instance of quotation marks alone presents the reader with the challenge of penetrating the sourcing mystery. 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.


Again, everything in quotes could be direct from Reid's mouth. But it also could be from the authors' notepad. It could also be the remembrance of someone who heard the remark. Plus you have co-authors, whispering to one another! What's unequivocal, however, is the whole "as he later put it privately," part. "Privately" definitively excludes the possibility that Reid himself offered those remarks for the purposes of running in a best-selling, widely-reported book.

More perplexing "ground rules" were offered on "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! Aren't the authors of the book, not the subjects, constructing the mise-en-scene? 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? It's too charitable to simply call this shady.

In today's Politico, Mike Allen and Glenn Thrush back this up:

Harry Reid isn't talkative. But the Senate majority leader chatted freely with the two disarmingly charming book authors who came to his office at the Capitol shortly after the 2008 election.


They -- and their tape recorder -- were soaking in his reminiscences about the wild campaign that had turned a backbencher in his caucus into president of the United States.

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.


And then, the authors seem to indict Halperin and Heilemann:

Maybe Reid and [senior communications director Jim] Manley -- thinking back to their many candid exchanges over the years -- simply assumed that Halperin wouldn't burn him or his boss. Or maybe he expected that Halperin would check back with him on any quotes he planned to use?


Whatever they were thinking, they were wrong.


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.


That is just absurd. Maybe there are unwritten rules, governing Senate majority leaders, over which a cabal of unnamed "Capitol Hill veterans" keep close watch. But, suffice it to say, inflammatory words spoken under the condition of anonymity are kept secret in Washington all the time. Let's cast our mind back to August 19, 2009, where the Washington Post unleashed an army of unnamed sources to slag the public option:

"I don't understand why the left of the left has decided that this is their Waterloo," said a senior White House adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We've gotten to this point where health care on the left is determined by the breadth of the public option. I don't understand how that has become the measure of whether what we achieve is health-care reform."


That's a White House advisor, slagging proponents of a wildly popular health care policy component, using the inflammatory rhetoric of Jim DeMint. To date, no one knows who said this. But I bet a lot of people would really love to know.

And, as 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: beyond their inflammations, they tend to get things wrong and they tend to tell lies.

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

I think that the sad thing is that I'd like reporters to do more to penetrate all of the veils that political figures throw up in front of themselves. I hate being bullshitted! And the newshole is only too accomodating to people who want to tell tales out of school. Why aren't the people who spread the falsehoods and the inflammations I listed getting burned?

The reason for this is simple. In journalistic circles, true currency doesn't come from holding people to accounts. What's treasured instead are 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 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 attention of the newshole is the anonymous venom.

It's all in the service of utter, black venality. I am honestly depressed to be 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.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Fucking brilliant, spot-on and other assorted approbations.