The Games Journalists Play
It’s no exaggeration to say that John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s Game Change proved to be one of those brief, earthshaking events in immediately–replaced by another one. (In this case, its replacement was a genuine earthquake in Haiti and a metaphorical one in Massachusetts.) Because of the authors’ unparalleled access to the 2008 presidential race’s major players, and their willingness to offer blanket anonymity to those willing to spill, they succeeded in constructing a rather rare commodity: a book that sings as it singes; a story that suffers not at all from the reader’s full knowledge of how it all turns out.
Phenomena such as Game Change‘s publication are often more instructive for what they show about the community that prizes them than for the actual information they contain. Its most revealing passages, as Hendrik Hertzberg noted in The New Yorker, “are based on what may be fairly called gossip.” It is packed with score-settling, back-stabbing, virtuoso displays of profanity by its principals and some awfully impressive feats of mind reading by its authors. As Charles Pierce pointed out in his “Slacker Friday” appearance on my “Altercation” blog, what there isn’t is any discussion of, say, healthcare, Afghanistan or Al Qaeda. But surely this is an accurate reflection of the meaning of “news” to the MSM Powers That Be. While New York‘s Heilemann is one of the more independent-minded mainstream reporters, Halperin, of Time and formerly of ABC, occupies a place in the forging of insider conventional wisdom not unlike that of Vogue‘s Anna Wintour in the fashion world, with a focus no less intense on appearances and shiny surfaces.
Just before the book was published, as its spin machine was falling into place, The Atlantic‘s Marc Ambinder offered this assessment: “Political scientists aren’t going to like this book, because it portrays politics as it is actually lived by the candidates, their staff and the press, which is to say–a messy, sweaty, ugly, arduous competition between flawed human beings–a universe away from numbers and probabilities and theories.”
Challenged privately, Ambinder retracted and apologized for this crack, going so far as to promise to attend the next convention of the Midwest Political Science Association as penance. Even so, he was surely giving voice to what most political journalists and practitioners believe. (The New York Times Magazine‘s Matt Bai made a similarly sweeping anti-academic statement in a review published in the journal Democracy last year.)
A second unintentional revelation of Game Change is the actual degree to which political journalists and operatives cooperate to create campaign narratives that undermine the commonly understood notions of just what journalism is supposed to be. If there is any value in learning the dispiriting details of the dysfunctional marriage between the frightfully smarmy John Edwards and the not-so-saintly-after-all Elizabeth Edwards, it is that everything we were sold during the campaign about this couple was a lie. It doesn’t really matter much in terms of whether he would have made a good president, but given how much ink is spilled on the “character” issues of candidates and their spouses, it is significant that virtually everything written about the Edwardses when it mattered belied reality. Can this really be news to everyone who covered the 2004 and 2008 campaigns?
The authors also devote considerable space to a column early in the campaign in which Hollywood mogul David Geffen made nasty comments about Bill and Hillary Clinton to Maureen Dowd before co-hosting an Obama fundraiser. Like Dowd, the Game Change authors go gaga over Geffen’s “world-class art” (“Rauschenbergs, de Koonings, Pollocks, Gorkys, a Jasper Johns target, a Jasper Johns flag” in the book; “a Jasper Johns flag and a matched pair of de Koonings” in her column). They describe how Geffen and Dowd, “a mischievous dyad,” conspired to produce a bombshell attack on the Clintons’ character from their former close friend and sometime adviser. Dowd interviewed Geffen for fifteen minutes. She then “left and wrote her column, then called Geffen and read it to him.” The next night, after the fundraiser, Dowd came to dinner with the Obamas and a few Hollywood types, and Geffen read the column to Barack Obama, who presumably was amused.
The Clinton campaign took the bait. Mark Penn, who comes off only slightly better in this book than did Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, reacted so hysterically that he suggested releasing whatever still-under-seal presidential records might reflect unfavorably on Geffen. Campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson demanded that Obama return Geffen’s money and repudiate his support. Obama quite sensibly replied, “It’s not clear to me why I should be apologizing for someone else’s remarks.” The incident became a boon to Obama, making the Clinton campaign look panicked and incompetent. (Hillary gave Penn and Wolfson the go-ahead to go after Geffen upon being woken up by her campaign chief, Patti Solis Doyle. If there is one worthwhile lesson to be learned from this book, it is not to make big decisions when somebody’s just woken you up.)
More significant, the episode demonstrates just how little a role the rules of professional journalism play in allegedly top-flight political reporting. Real reporters do not read their columns to their subjects in advance. And Penn and Wolfson knew damn well that Obama had no control over what Geffen said or did, but almost everyone covering the story treated it as if it were a sensible demand, because the phony food-fight story line was so much fun to pursue. Finally, at the end of the story, Heilemann and Halperin inform us, in the voice of God, that “Soon after, when Geffen visited New York, people in cars on Madison Avenue beeped their horns and gave the thumbs-up as he walked down the street.”
I wonder how they fact-checked that one…