Come back, Bob Woodward. Save us from Game Change journalism

Given the choice between Bob Woodward's consistently serious, albeit somewhat flawed work, and the flashy, hollow, click-through brand of journalism championed by Game Change, I'll take Woodward every time.

Dear Bob Woodward, all is forgiven.

Well, not all of it. But as someone who's been highly critical of Woodward's work in recent years and who thought he'd become romanced by his Bush White House sources and had played dumb about the Valerie Plame leak story, I'm here to say that viewed against the current backdrop of Beltway journalism's dwindling standards -- as measured by the recent campaign book Game Change -- Woodward's workmanlike approach suddenly never looked so good.

I'm not saying that Woodward didn't deserve the whacks he received, especially from the liberal blogosphere. He did. But I'm having second thoughts about my attacks on him, only because if I knew just how dramatically Beltway journalism would dissolve in the ensuing years -- to the point where a nasty, vindictive, and dubiously sourced book like Game Change would be held aloft by elites as a great work of reporting and political analysis -- then I probably would have gone easier on Woodward's transgressions.

Given the choice between Woodward's consistently serious, albeit flawed books -- which always carry with them an air of professionalism and class -- versus the flashy, hollow, click-through brand of journalism championed by Game Change, I'll take Woodward's approach every time. Because despite their flaws, Woodward's books are mostly about policy, about historic White House initiatives and how they get made, including all the backroom administration wrangling involved. Game Change, by comparison, rarely aspires to be more than a gossip clearinghouse. (And, yes, that's why The Village loves the book.)

After finishing Game Change, I'd be surprised if many readers had any deeper understanding of why the central players ran for president, or of the platforms on which they campaigned. Game Change, like the Beltway press, doesn't do public policy. It doesn't even do candidate profiles. Instead, the book is quite literally a celebration of (gossipy) process over substance, and is just as often relentlessly -- and gratuitously -- unserious and mean. It's filled with wildly one-sided, stick-figure portraits of the campaign's major players. (Elizabeth Edwards “barked,” “snarled,” “badgered,” and “berated” her husband's campaign aides, all on one page.)

Believe it or not, in terms of capturing one section of the book, this New York Daily News headline wasn't that far off (emphasis added):

Book 'Game Change' portrays Sarah Palin as unstable ignoramus who believed Saddam was behind 9/11

As Joe Conason noted at Salon, Game Change is so infuriating that even progressives might (might!) end up feeling sorry for Palin, based on the relentlessly negative portrayal she received in the book. And, yes, we understand that GOP campaign guru and key Game Change source Steve Schmidt hates Sarah Palin. We get it. But does that intramural feud mean that the GOP's 2008 general election campaign played out exactly the way Schmidt told the Game Change authors that it did? Not likely. (Life is never that simple.)

So, if Game Change represents some kind of change in the Beltway media guard -- after all, Game Change Central (aka Politico) last week dubbed co-author Mark Halperin “the high priest of establishment political journalism” -- then I'm going to resist change to cling to the Woodward model of elite Beltway reporting.

It was Woodward, of course, who practically trademarked the omniscient, trust-me approach to inner-circle reporting as he re-created scenes as well as extended dialogues, often without explaining to readers exactly who his sources were. (And, yes, that led to legitimate debate about his reporting methods.) It's the same trick Halperin and co-author John Heilemann try in Game Change in hopes of creating a "sweeping, novelistic" feel. A key difference, though, is that Woodward employs a velvet writing touch, as compared to the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer style of Heilemann and Halperin, who, along with their score-settling sources, bury most of their key players under a pile of invective. In other words, in Woodward's books, most of the key players don't come off looking like assholes. In Game Change, they do. (Another glaring difference is that Game Change is littered with clichés: “smarter than the average bear”; “put his shoulder to the wheel”; “glacial pace”; “hit them like a ton of bricks”; “an iron grip”; “polar opposite”; “ready to stir the pot” ... )

The book is so mean-spirited that, as I read it, I wondered why Heilemann and Halperin wrote it. The duo certainly don't seem to hold the candidates, let alone politics, in high regard. And the end result is so gossip-driven that I doubt it will stand any sort of test of time as a serious retelling of the 2008 campaign.

In their “Author's Note,” here's how the two earnestly explain the need for another retelling of the 2008 campaign (emphasis added):

[W]e have tried to address the multitude of vital questions that daily journalism (and hourly blogofying) obsessed over briefly and then passed by, or never grappled with in the first place. How did Obama, a freshman senator with few tangible political accomplishments, convince himself that he should be, and could be, America's first African American president? What role did Bill Clinton actually play in his wife's campaign? Why did McCain pick the unknown and untested governor of Alaska as his running mate? And who is Sarah Palin, really?

Really? Those topics weren't discussed enough? That's odd, because I'm pretty sure that if you printed out all the cable TV transcripts from 2008 programs that dealt specifically with those topics and stretched them out end-to-end, the transcripts would likely run from Washington, D.C., to Bangor, Maine.

But according to Heilemann and Halperin, they wrote Game Change because the press hadn't addressed these questions often enough. Since that reason defies logic, I'm still curious about the real reason they decided to write Game Change. (FYI, the book has been optioned by HBO.)

Blogging about the book and the obvious journalistic questions it raised in terms of dubious sourcing, Greg Sargent wrote:

[W]hat's mystifying is that virtually none of the media figures lavishing attention on this book have broached the sourcing issue, something you'd think would merit a bit of discussion among professional journalists.

Sadly, I was not as mystified. It's true that the ethical questions Sargent pointed to used to be the kinds of red flags that prompted serious discussion and debate among Beltway scribes and journalism pros. But no more. And my guess is Heilemann and Halperin knew that and didn't really concern themselves with possible pushback among their colleagues. Instead, the duo seemed more interested in generating presale buzz, regardless of the ethical questions involved.

For instance, this damning portrait from Game Change, filled with all kinds of loaded language, was hyped by lots of media outlets as a prime example of what an unbearable witch Hillary Clinton was during the campaign. The Game Change scene takes place in an Iowa hotel suite on the night Clinton finished third in the state's caucuses:

The advisers in the room were all longtime intimates of the Clintons and had experienced their squalls of fury many times. But to a person, they found the display they were witnessing now utterly stunning -- and especially unnerving come from Hillary. Watching her bitter and befuddled reaction, her staggered lack of calm or command, one of her senior-most lieutenants thought for the first time, This woman shouldn't be president.

But let's examine the paragraph that directly preceded that anonymous takedown of Clinton, which received less media attention:

Losing always tests a politician's composure and grace. Hillary had never lost before, and she found little of either trait at her disposal. Presented with the carefully wrought, sound-bite-approved text of the concession speech she was soon supposed to deliver before the cameras, she sullenly leafed through the pages, cast them aside, and decided to ad lib. Her phone call to congratulate Obama was abrupt and impersonal. “Great victory, we're three tickets out of Iowa, see you in New Hampshire,” she said, and hung up the phone.

Do you see Game Change's glaringly dishonest disconnect?

Anxious to portray Clinton as a mindless hag, Game Change claimed she had become so unnerved by her Iowa loss that she'd stunned her (anonymous) aides (“to a person”) with her “staggering lack of calm and command.” But what did Clinton actually do that night in Iowa? According to Game Change's own account, she ad-libbed her concession speech and called Obama to congratulate him. (“Great victory.”)

That's it. That's the authors' evidence of an epic Clinton meltdown. There is no evidence, which means the whole premise is senseless. But in the end, the authors got their buzz thanks to a prized Hillary-hating passage (“Watching her bitter and befuddled reaction ... ”), even though they appear to have built it on the back of a lie.

And, by the way, go here to watch Clinton's composed and graceful concession remarks from Iowa that night. (And read Mayhill Fowler, here, for more examples of how the authors got Iowa wrong.)

Now let's look also at Game Change's already infamous “coffee” non-quote from Bill Clinton, reportedly spoken to Ted Kennedy. The authors not only couldn't confirm the inflammatory quote (so they printed it as a paraphrase), but then they went on television and improved the story. Out selling their book, the duo seemed to spike the tale with new information not found in the book.

This was the (supposedly) news-making passage:

But Bill [Clinton] then went on, belittling Obama in a manner that deeply offended Kennedy. Recounting the conversation later to a friend, Teddy fumed that Clinton had said, A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee.

The idea that Heilemann and Halperin would publish that anecdote even though they could not confirm the Clinton non-quote is rather astonishing, especially since the authors knew it would be controversial and “would get a lot of attention,” as Halperin told radio host Don Imus last week. Worse, not only did they include the unconfirmed passage, but it came to them third-hand. Meaning, the tale didn't come from Clinton, and it didn't come from Kennedy, but apparently it came from a Kennedy “friend” who heard Kennedy recount what he claimed Clinton had once said to him. That's more akin to the children's game of telephone tag than it is to professional reporting, and it's amazing that any journalist would include controversial information obtained from such a sketchy line of origin.

So the anecdote was already saddled with problems. But then Heilemann and Halperin added to the woes. First, in that same appearance with Imus, Halperin claimed the “coffee” story had come from “sources” -- plural -- which would suggest the anecdote was both legit and accurate. But in the book, readers are told the anecdote was relayed to a single Kennedy “friend.” So which was it? Did the story come from a “friend” or from “sources”? And why the sudden confusion from the authors when they were pressed about the non-quote?

Even more disturbing, though, was how after the book arrived in stores, the authors stressed that Kennedy had detected a nasty “racial” undertone to the “coffee” non-quote. Reading the book, however, that's not at all clear. The book tells us that Kennedy was “offended” by the alleged “coffee” crack, but that could easily be interpreted as Kennedy being offended because Clinton was treating Obama as a political neophyte -- as an amateur. The “coffee” quote could be seen as offensive without having anything to do with race. (Why, in the 21st century, would somebody who got senators and presidents coffee be presumed to be black?) And in Game Change, Heilemann and Halperin made no suggestion that Kennedy detected or interpreted a racist attack in the comment.

But, again, as with the flexible “sources” retelling, out publicizing the book, the authors suddenly changed the story and explicitly claimed Kennedy had been angered by Clinton's “racial” coffee remark. “It enraged Kennedy because he took it as a pretty serious slam on Obama with some kind of negative racial connotations,” Heilemann told Imus (emphasis added). Heilemann made the same claim appearing on Anderson Cooper's CNN program.

Well, if that was the case, then why didn't the authors include that fact in their book?

And how did Heilemann suddenly know that Kennedy detected a racial connotation to the Clinton non-quote? Did the Kennedy “friend” (or “sources”) tell the authors that? After Kennedy told the Clinton coffee story, did Kennedy explicitly say he found it racially offensive, or did the Kennedy “friend” (or “sources”) simply infer that, and now Heilemann states it as fact, even though it's not mentioned in the book?

Either way, the book passage is a mess and reflects the deeper problems with Game Change.

As for Bob Woodward, he's currently working on a new book: an insider's account of the Obama White House. For the record, I have no idea whether it will be any good or not. But compared to the soggy standards set by Game Change, Woodward's effort is bound to improve Beltway journalism.