“Burned” Book

Did Halperin and Heilemann play fair with Harry Reid?

The controversy surrounding Harry Reid’s remarks has occupied the nation’s political press since they broke late Friday

But a second controversy lurks behind: did John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, the authors of Game Change, the book reporting the comments, “burn” Senator Reid by reporting his analysis of how candidate Obama’s electoral chances might be affected by being “light-skinned” and bereft of “Negro-dialect”?

It’s a complicated argument—made no clearer by missing information from all of the main participants—stemming from confusion about the terms. While the authors have so far declined to state that their source for the quote was Reid himself, the senator’s office has said that’s the case.

Halperin and Heilemann insist they haven’t “burned” anybody. Further more, they outlined a definition of “deep background” in their author’s note, and suggested those were the terms of all the book’s

But it seems that Reid has been telling people he feels like he was “burned” by the authors, perhaps because he never had the terms of the interview explained properly to him. While there’s evidence suggesting some of the fault lies with his staff, even at the highest levels of politics, how far should journalists go to make the terms of their conversations clear to their sources? And what would be the consequences if reporters were more explicit in this regard?

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.