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.)