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Yet Another Fruitless Plea for Our Reporters to Look Not at Flash and Noise But at Substance and Signal...

Anybody who has been on the inside of any event subjected to the Woodward or perhaps the White treatment knows three things:

  1. Of the new things reported in Halperin and Heilemann book with the self-parody title--Double-Down Game-Change All-in Political-Gossip-Fest MMXIII--one-third are true, one-third are badly mischaracterized and misleading, and one-third are flat-out lies.

  2. Readers cannot tell what in Halperin-Heilemann is what because the authors do not know either.

  3. The prominence of the Halperin-Heilemann reporting style degrades governance and reduces public understanding, for the signal about politicians' true beliefs and orientations is drowned by the sensationalist noise, and the fact that politics is graded not as an effort to construct win-win deals but as a zero-sum sporting contest helps, via an observer effect, to turn it into such.

Thus I find it welcome that Ezra Klein slams Halperin-Heileman in his review--but am somewhat disappointed that you have to read to the fourth paragraph before you start to recognize that Ezra Klein's review is a slam:

Paragraph 4:

But when you buy “Game Change 2,” you should also buy its opposite--“The Gamble,” by political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck.... It signals its contrasting point of view in its first sentence: “68,” the authors wrote. “That is how many moments were described as ‘game-changers’ in the 2012 presidential election.” The rest of the book is dedicated to proving that almost none truly were.

And, of course Sides and Vavreck are correct.

Smart things Ezra says in paragraphs 5-23:

[Teddy] White came to lament the example he had set... "acknowledged that his preoccupation with character and strategy had given birth to quadrennial media frenzies... took part of the blame.".... Sides and Vavreck... an overdue corrective... they have something that campaign reporters lack: data... while most election narratives track the inputs of the campaign, Sides and Vavreck track the outputs... “game-changers” actually prove to be... “game-samers.”... As a 1940 study of voters concluded, “Knowing a few of their personal characteristics, we can tell with fair certainty how they will finally vote: They join the fold to which they belong. What the campaign does is to activate their political predispositions.” The 2012 numbers bear that out....

For anyone who covers campaigns, “The Gamble” is a discomfiting read... much of what we cover simply doesn’t matter... rests on a premise we don’t always want to admit: that the political news media are key actors in the drama... news media bias... is not in favor of Republicans or Democrats... but of volatility and sensationalism.... The day before the 2012 election, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote: "We begin with the three words everyone writing about the election must say: Nobody knows anything. Everyone is guessing." By that point, reams of data had been collected, and they were clearly pointing to an Obama victory. Noonan and others were simply stumping for the news media’s perennial favorite candidate: excitement....

For campaign journalism... [The Gamble] is a game-changer.

And here are Ezra Klein's paragraphs 1-3:

“Game Change 2” has just been published, and horse-race junkies currently feeling the aches and fevers of election withdrawal (Virginia and New Jersey’s gubernatorial races--much less New York’s puny mayoral race--hardly provided a fix) are rejoicing. As well they should. “Game Change 2”--the actual title is “Double Down: Game Change 2012”--is a joyous romp through the seedy underbelly of presidential campaigning. It’s a cure for the off-year shakes.

It’s also a marvel of reporting. Any time three staff members met in a room to badmouth a colleague or a candidate admitted to a moment of stress or self-doubt, authors John Heilemann and Mark Halperin appear to have been sitting in the corner, scribbling notes.

As the subtitle indicates, the book is ultimately an account of the actors and moments that changed the game (“game,” of course, being the last presidential election). From the dead end Chris Christie hit in the vice presidential vetting process to President Obama’s crisis of confidence before his second debate against Mitt Romney, the course of the election--and thus the country--seems to reset every few pages. The hinge of history is well-oiled.