Just about every point I'm about to make about John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's campaign book Game Change and the journalistic convention of "deep background" has already been made elsewhere since the book came out a week ago. But these points are worth herding into a coherent and complete argument if only because people are 1) still wondering whether Heilemann and Halperin "burned" Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; 2) debating whether Game Change establishes new rules for political reporting; and 3) asking whether Heilemann and Halperin have done something so unethical that they've damaged the ability of other reporters to do their work.
Game Change delivers so much campaign 2008 dish, we'd probably be talking about it no matter what. But after Sen. Reid apologized on Jan. 9 for something he was quoted saying in Game Change, the book dominated the discussion on the broadcast networks, the cable channels, and in the press.
In case you've been napping for a week and missed the hubbub, Game Change quotes Reid saying that Barack Obama could be a successful presidential candidate because he was a "light-skinned" African-American "with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." The press jumped all over the statement. After confessing that he'd said it, Reid let it be known that he felt "burned" by Heilemann and Halperin—that is, he thought that the reporters had not honored their sourcing agreement with him—and the authors have had to defend their sourcing rules at practically every step of their media tour (CNN, MSNBC, Fox, ABC, Washington Post, Imus, et al.).
One of the reasons I didn't join the early Game Change conversation was that I didn't see any evidence that Heilemann and Halperin had violated their sourcing agreement with Reid or anybody else. The passage in the book doesn't say who Reid made his statement to; it merely alludes to the time frame in which he made it. The only reason we know that Reid said it to Heilemann and Halperin is that he has confessed it. The authors have declined to confirm that they spoke to Reid or anyone else, pointing to the first page of their book in which they state unambiguously:
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. We believed this was essential to eliciting the level of candor on which a book of this sort depends.
While these sorts of sourcing rules give me the willies, I understand they have become the norm for a certain kind of political reporting—especially Woodward-esque books about what really went on behind the scenes. If Heilemann and Halperin conducted all of their interviews on mutually agreed upon rules of "deep background," they're well within their rights to keep their mouths buttoned.
Although I have no inside knowledge of how the Reid-Heilemann-Halperin interview went down, my guess is that any politician who came up with a formulation as tidy as the "light-skinned-Negro-dialect" would never limit himself to saying it just once. My guess is that either 1) Reid said it to Heilemann and Halperin in the interview and the authors found somebody else who heard the same words from Reid's lips, or 2) Heilemann and Halperin came into the interview knowing that Reid had made such a statement at some point and used the interview to steer him into saying it again for confirmation. If I'm right with either guess, then the authors have not violated any sourcing agreement—they have not put on the record something that Reid said to them and them only on deep background.
(One of the delicious things about source rules is that no two journalists agree on what they mean. Here are definitions from William Safire, the American Journalism Review, Timothy Noah, the State Department.)
Fortifying my intuition that H&H haven't done anything wrong is the fact that Reid's office has fussed about the passage in Game Change but hasn't directly accused the authors of violating a source agreement. Without a complainant, it's hard to argue for a prosecution. Also, Heilemann and Halperin appear to be disciplined journalists, boasting at their media stops that they conducted 300 interviews with 200 sources. Whether their book captures campaign 2008 accurately, I can't say. But it's evident by the post-publication silence of their sources that many (most? all?) of them feel as though Heilemann and Halperin upheld their confidentiality promises.
So in that sense, the sourcing debate revolving around Game Change changes nothing. Heilemann and Halperin, as best as I can glean, have done nothing immoral or unethical. High-placed sources made skittish by Reid's embarrassment will remain so for a few days or weeks and then return to the symbiotic relationship they have with reporters. When politicians talk to reporters, they're not doing them a favor; they're doing business.
Any inconvenience suffered by reporters will be temporary. Smarter sources than Reid will capitalize on the Game Change moment and work harder to understand the terms of engagement they've struck with reporters before, and not after, they open their mouths.
And the very smartest will remind themselves that they should never say anything on the record, off the record, on background, or on deep background that they aren't prepared to see in print in some form.
My views on the Harry Reid perplex were informed by the work of Marc Ambinder, Michael Kinsley, Clint Hendler, Howard Kurtz, Omar Wasow (who says Harry Reid was only being honest), and Team Politico, which treats every story like a Haitian earthquake. Disclosure: I've never met Halperin, but Heilemann and I were chums until 10 years ago when we had a falling out over a petty matter that, yes, yes, yes, was probably my fault. Get petty with me at email@example.com and get it on the record from my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)