As a reporter, I’ve had plenty of off-the-record conversations. Some juicy, some not so much. I have never, however, had the delicious pleasure of interviewing on the basis of “deep background”. This is the reporting method used by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann in their new book “Game Change”.
Basically, operating on the understanding that all sources are providing deep background means that the authors do not have to reveal any of their sources in the finished product. It is an ideal method of gathering a huge amount of information and creating a sweeping omniscient narrative.
I have not read the book yet, only an excerpt in New York magazine. (As a result of reading that excerpt I cannot wait to get my hands on it.) In this instance, writing a book from an omniscient point of view is akin to the reader being transported back in time to be a fly on the wall in some of the most fascinating, infuriating, disastrous, and amazing meetings and gatherings that occurred during the 2008 presidential election. Who wouldn’t love to take that ride?!
The beautiful thing about the crafting of “Game Change” is that the authors got everyone to dish post-election under the agreement that their name would never appear in print…not exactly what the average reporter can promise. As a result, they got the dirt. Some say it’s too dirty – that the authors may have let angry ex- aides and staffers have free reign. The authors rebuttal is that they were very careful with sources and never relied on one person to shape the telling of an event.
Once I do finally meet all imminent work-related deadlines and get the bookstore to buy this gem, I am anticipating a riveting read. I’ve always been a big fan of the omniscient point of view in all kinds of literature. And surely this, of all books, will be intriguing considering that all of the characters are so well-known and have (or had) such carefully crafted public personas.
Now I have to confess, something that has always irked me is “journalism” that is an endless parade of information gathered from unnamed sources. I think there is without a doubt a need for off-the-record conversations, but when they overwhelm an article it begins to read like a flimsy, disposable set of quasi-might-not-actually-be-facts. Writing like this makes my skin crawl. Unfortunately, I’m seeing more and more of it all the time.
“Game Change”, I suppose the argument could be made, is one of these wannabe pieces – full of “facts”, but no substance to back it up. But in this case, that argument does not hold water. I think writing the book in this way was a necessary evil if Halperin and Heilemann wanted to tell the raw, uncensored, gritty truth. And is it really the truth? Do the authors know for sure that everything in the book is completely accurate? I don’t think they have any way of knowing that, but I am convinced that neither of them have any reason to believe that anything in the book is false.
So when all the fuss got kicked up over the Harry Reid comments, I did not find it to be completely unseemly. Some did. But not only did Reid’s staff admit that Reid made the comment to the authors, Halperin and Heilemann probably verified Reid’s feelings through another source as well. Now, should they have written the comment as a direct quote? Well, Reid’s people also never attacked the authors alleging that they violated their sourcing agreement, so it looks as if they didn’t actually do anything wrong.
The excerpt I read from New York magazine was about John and St. Elizabeth Edwards. What I found so fascinating about that part of the story is that no one knew anything about it during the campaign. Stories of John McCain aides being frustrated by Sarah Palin’s lack of intellectual rigor were swirling while the campaign was still going on. Not so with the Edwardses. They fairy tale was definitely unraveling well before Edwards conceded, but the extent of the turmoil reported in the book is staggering – mostly because there was no hint of it in the mainstream media at the time.
Did the Edwards camp just have that tight a grip on what got out to the press? Was the staff so deluded by the promises of their candidate that when he morphed into a woman-crazed narcissistic lunatic, they didn’t have the heart to blow the whistle? Did they actually feel bad for an ill Elizabeth even though she’s portrayed as a raving banshee? So many questions! If the rest of “Game Change” is as good as the excerpt, and lives up to all the hype, I’m in for one awesome winter read.