To take a less extreme example, let’s say that, mid-campaign, one of the authors interviewed a Palin staffer complaining about the candidate’s relationship with the McCain campaign’s upper echelon. They’d be justified printing something like “Martin Eisenstadt was heard grousing that the governor ‘got no respect’ from headquarters.” Again, the reader doesn’t know that one of the authors was told it by a source—only that it was supposedly said.
Pause to take a breath, because things are about to get stranger: Heilemann, when pressed on the sourcing on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” yesterday, offered just a bit more:
“But 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.”
It’s clear what they are getting at here: If, say, the authors were relying on David Axelrod as a source to recount a conversation he had with candidate Obama, they’d be free to quote not only what Axelrod remembered Obama saying, but what Axelrod said he said—in other words, both halves of the conversation—as long as they didn’t identify Axelrod as the source.
That’s probably how the authors made use of their agreements’ terms in most cases. But this doesn’t do anything to clear up what happened with Reid, unless you think that the very act of Reid sitting for the interview was tantamount to putting himself in a scene.
It would be interesting to know how many of the book’s quotes were offered in post election interviews as after-the-fact opinion or analysis, quoted under the authors’ definition of deep background, and, through vague phrasing, transubstantiated by the reader into election-era quotes. A very close reading of the book might find some other possibilities. But without those sources coming forward to complain (and why would they, given that no one is likely to be so ill-served by their quote as Reid), we’ll never know for sure.
One final twist: Thrush and Allen further reported that “according to a person with knowledge of the exchange,” Reid had been told by staff that the interview was “off the record,” a more stringent standard usually meaning that neither the substance nor the source of the information can be reported. If we assume that Halperin and Heilemann correctly informed Reid’s staff of their terms, that would seem to take the onus off the authors and onto Reid’s staff, who failed to let Reid know what he was sitting down for. (Jim Manley, a Reid spokesman whom Allen’s recounting places at the center of the tale, did not return a phone call requesting comment.)
At the same time, Reid maintains, according to some rather opaque Allen reporting in both Monday’s Politico Playbook and in the story co-written with Thrush, that “he felt burned by the authors.”
Unfortunately, “burned” is a term, not unlike the others in this mess, that could have more than one meaning. Does the senator feel that Halperin and Heilemann did not fully or clearly convey their plans for how they might use the interview? Or, worse, that they did, but broke that agreement? Or, worse still, that they lied about how they might use the interview?
Or is it simply that he didn’t expect to have a potentially explosive quote emerge from what he assumed was a rather anodyne fact-finding conversation?
If it’s the latter, then Reid doesn’t deserve sympathy. He’s one of the country’s very senior most elected officials, someone who by now ought to know that there is danger as well as benefit in talking to journalists.
No matter what, Halperin and Heilemann have some explaining to do. Now that Reid’s camp has confirmed that the comments were made to the Game Change authors, Halperin and Heilemann may feel that they can discuss what happened here and their decision to use the quotes. Even if they still feel obligated not to corroborate his revelation, they could talk through the bounds of their sourcing agreement, and what they feel like it entitled them to do, in a range of hypotheticals.
Remember, as their publicist says, the two will be doing one interview on their methodology. I wouldn’t want to miss it.
Check out our News Meeting question on the Game Change attribution saga here.