Veteran journalist blasts "convoluted" Halperin/Heilemann explanation of their ground rules

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Mark Halperin & John Heilemann explain their approach to interviews for Game Change, amid suggestions that they broke their ground rules in quoting Harry Reid:

As a chagrined Reid telephoned political allies in the Senate and civil rights community to shore up his support this weekend, he made it clear that he felt burned by the authors.

In the book's"Authors' Note," they wrote: "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."

Heilemann said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe": "We had a very clear agreement with all those sources that our interviews would be on deep background. ... Our ground rules are ... that we won't identify any of our sources as the sources of the material. 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."

Halperin added: "There's no one we talked to for the book who we burned in any way, or violated any agreement with."

I really have no idea what that bolded part means. Among other problems: How could an interviewee put himself in scenes of a book that had not yet been written? Obviously, he couldn't. The only person who can put an interviewee in a scene of a book is the book's author -- that's the person who decides what the scenes are.

And I'm not alone in being baffled by that explanation. Moments ago, veteran journalist Bob Franken responded on MSNBC:

"That's the most convoluted explanation I've heard in a long time. There's one thing that you have to remember in Washington: You don't burn sources. You don't burn them not because it's the right thing to do, it's because you don't get any information the next time around. And I really believe that what we might see is that these guys are not going to be welcome when they're talking to different people who might provide them information in the future."

Update: Washington Post reporter Ben Pershing doesn't understand the convoluted explanation, either:

Silver Spring, MD: It is my understanding that Sen Reid's remark was made almost two years ago, with reporters present. If true, why is it that this wasn't newsworthy then, but it is now?

Ben Pershing: Reid didn't make the comments in some public venue, he made it to these two authors who were working on their book and obviously wanted to save it for the book. The more interesting question, just from a reportorial perspective. is whether Reid thought the comments were off the record. The two authors -- Mark Halperin and John Heilemann -- have tried to explain how they were able to conduct their interviews on "deep background" but still name Reid as making these comments. I'm not sure if I understand their explanation.

Mark Halperin, Bob Franken, John Heilemann
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