Political blood sport: Anonymous sources
It is said that journalism is merely the first draft of history. Rarely, however, does one encounter a book that purports to be serious non-fiction and yet is neither journalism nor history. Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin is (in this writer’s opinion), like reading 436 pages of The National Enquirer. Ironically, about the only solid reporting in Game Change is taken from the pages of The National Enquirer.
The authors claim to have conducted over 300 interviews with over 200 people involved with the presidential election of 2008. But the problem with Game Change is that almost all of the people supposedly interviewed will not allow their names to be associated with what they purportedly said.
Political old-timers: Hillary and Bill Clinton and John McCain take most of the ax-grinding hits from former associates who refused to be named. Political newcomers: Barak Obama and Sarah Palin, come off relatively unscathed. The personal lives of John and Elizabeth Edwards are stripped bare. Some people like to read about politics as a blood-sport. For those who do, then Game Change is, no doubt, fun reading.
Within any failed political campaign there are operatives who want to blame others for their failures. There are those who claim if only their advice had been taken the outcome of the election would have been different. As the late Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously said: “A memorandum is written not to inform the reader but to protect the writer.” Desperate to avoid responsibility for failure, the ax-grinders sometimes seek out writers who are willing to write their side of the story without proper attribution.
The problem with books that purport to be non-fiction and yet are based on mostly anonymous sources, is that the reader is deprived of the opportunity to make an independent evaluation of the veracity and/or motives of the person supposedly being quoted.
Suffice it to say that reporting -- as opposed to the writing of “opinion” columns such as this one -- should rest on the: who, what, when, where, and how of what took place. For the reporter and his or her editor, the “why” behind a story can be more problematic. The “why” often requires a lot more research and analysis.
But, as Sergeant Joe Friday used to say, “Just the facts, ma’am.” What the witness purports to be the facts should be verified, by yet another, source. Even then, the tone of a story can be altered by which facts the reporter decides to include and by which facts the reporter decides to omit, often due to limitations of space.
Last week, it was reported that 49 states (Hawaii being the only exception) reported snow on the ground. Probably, true. Out of curiosity, I checked with a friend in Hawaii. He confirmed no snow in Hawaii.
Weather reporting relies on verifiable facts, ma’am. Weather forecasting is the opinion of the forecaster as to what the weather might do in the future. Everyone is entitled to an opinion about what the weather is going to do. When we opine about what the weather is going to do, we are often wrong.
Sometimes, journalism schools attract students who say they want to get into journalism to “change the world,” rather than just report the facts and let the readers decide if the world needs to be changed or not. Opinion writing differs in that it is…well, just the opinion of one person whose name is clearly attached to the opinion. The reader is left to agree or disagree.
This opinion writer’s mistake with regard to Game Change was failing to read the authors’ admission that they used over 200 anonymous sources. Had I done so, I would like to think that I would not have read the book.
Syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, studied at Harvard’s JFK School of Government. Dr. Hamilton is the former editor-in-chief of The Capital Times of Lincoln, Nebraska.
©2010 William Hamilton.