Deep Trouble

Halperin and Heilemann’s game-changing attribution

Is there a single journalistic quirk more likely to cause post-publication tsuris than the varying taxonomies of “off the record,” “background,” and “deep background”?

This week’s reason to raise the question, is, of course, the controversy surrounding the comments of Senate majority leader Harry Reid. Or more precisely, the controversy behind the controversy: Was Reid “burned” when his quotes on how Obama’s non-“Negro dialect” and light skin increased his chances of becoming our first black president appeared in Game Change, the new book reporting the remarks?

That’s the question facing New York magazine’s John Heilemann and Time’s Mark Halperin, the book’s authors. (And, unfortunately, CJR won’t be able to ask it. Kate Pruss Pinnick, their publicist, says that “the guys are only doing one interview on their methodology”—and it won’t be with us.)

This is a very messy situation, so let’s start by laying out what they’ve said elsewhere about their sourcing agreement, starting with the book’s author’s note:

All of our interviews—from those with junior staffers to those with the candidates themselves—were conducted on a ‘deep background’ basis, which means we agreed not to identify the subjects as sources in any way.

It’s helpful that the authors, after introducing the term “deep background,” offer their own definition, because, as is usually the case with attribution standards, there isn’t a universally understood definition of the term.

But their standards seem to be consistent with the following scenario. If Joe Schmoe spoke to them, the substance of his remarks is on the record, but the source of the information is not. He should never find the words “Joe Schmoe told us…” introducing the information he passed on, or the words “Joe Schome told us he said…” introducing a quote. But he could certainly find all the information—even information that a reasonable reader would assume only Joe Schmoe had access to—relayed in minute detail.

It’s not hard to see how this sort of agreement can get very weird, very quickly. Even if the authors never tell you who told them about a scene, it’s hard not to venture an accurate guess. See, for example, New York’s Halperin/Heilemann excerpt on the Edwards meltdown, where the Rielle Hunter-related exploits of Jonathan Brumberger, a young staffer, are detailed alongside his internal monologue, and his one on one interactions with the candidate. Gee, I wonder who talked?

There are some internal thoughts in the paragraph containing the Reid remarks, but context around the Reid quotes make it less clear who passed on his words:

He 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 said privately. Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama’s race would help him more than hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination.

Given the tenses and phrasing, one likely guess for the source of the quotes would have been someone other than Reid—a staffer, aide, or consultant or some such who heard Reid muse about race as Obama considered or undertook his run.

But on Monday morning Greg Sargent of the Plum Line reported that the majority leader’s office confirmed that the comments were made by Reid himself in an interview with Halperin and Heilemann. Politico’s Mike Allen and Glenn Thrush later reported that the taped interview occurred “shortly after” the election.

While the authors identify the “Negro”-laced comments as having been offered “privately,” which they certainly were, the book doesn’t say to whom they were offered, or when. We now know that, according to Reid’s office, the quotes come from the authors’ first-hand knowledge. But readers, seeing the phrasing on the page, would have no idea of the quote’s source—it could have been, as seemed quite possible on first reading, that Reid offered the observation to someone else, who then passed it on to the authors.

So you see? By not using the words “Reid told us,” they’ve lived up to their (now rather narrow seeming) commitment not to identify the source of any information.

The consequences of the authors’ perspective on their agreement, if taken to its logical conclusion, are quite bizarre. Under their understanding, the authors would be justified in printing their full interview transcript with Reid, or anyone else they’d interviewed, as long as they didn’t identify themselves as the questioners—instead saying that the remarks had been offered privately, or to some generic “reporters,” or “in Washington,” or some other dodge phrase.

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.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.