Jake Sherman and Marin Cogan at Politico:
Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the powerful Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has launched an inquiry into whether spokesman Kurt Bardella improperly shared e-mails from other reporters with a New York Times reporter writing a book on Washington’s political culture, POLITICO has learned.
Bardella has been cooperating extensively with the Times’s Mark Leibovich on the book, and Issa told POLITICO Monday that he would “get to the bottom” of exactly what Bardella shared with Leibovich.
On Tuesday morning, Issa fired Bardella as a result of his investigation.
Issa, Bardella and Leibovich all were given several opportunities by POLITICO to deny that the e-mails were improperly shared. Bardella and Leibovich declined comment. Issa says he simply does not know.
Issa said Monday that Bardella assured him that “he does not share information between one reporter and another.” But he added there are questions about whether he might have treated Leibovich and his book project differently.
“His collaboration with the book author is what I want to get to the bottom of,” Issa said.
Issa said he was seeking to speak to Leibovich personally on Wednesday to ascertain “what kind of cooperation he was expecting. … I want to know in minute terms what the terms are.” As of late Monday afternoon, Leibovich said he had not heard from Issa or his staff.
In an earlier interview with POLITICO, Issa said he was aware his staff has been cooperating with Leibovich and that he had had a hallway interview with Leibovich himself. He said he agrees that if Bardella forwarded or blind-copied reporter e-mails to Leibovich, it would be improper. “It troubles me too,” Issa said, adding that if it is going on, “I’m going to get it stopped.”
Confronted about whether he was sharing the e-mails with Leibovich, Bardella initially said, “Am I bcc’ing him on every e-mail I send out? Of course not.”
Paul Farhi and Paul Kane at WaPo:
Leibovich, a former Washington Post staffer, is on leave from the Times while he researches the book, which is scheduled to be published next year. Reached Monday night, Leibovich had no comment.
Politico.com first reported the alleged leak Monday. The Web site’s editor, John Harris, first raised concerns about the e-mails Sunday in a letter to Issa.
“The practice of sharing reporter e-mails with another journalist on a clandestine basis would be egregiously unprofessional under any circumstances,” Harris wrote, according to Politico. “As the editor-in-chief of Politico, my concern is heightened by information suggesting that Politico journalists may have had their reporting compromised by this activity.”
Harris – a former Post writer and editor – said in an interview Monday that his Capitol Hill reporters heard about the possible leak Friday. “It’s just intolerable if [information about] our reporting was shared with other journalists from other news organizations,” he said. “Our reporting is proprietary and our stories are competitive. Journalists have an expectation that their communication [with sources] is confidential.”
But sources familiar with the matter said that the leak involves hundreds of e-mails to Issa’s office, many of them mundane and routine inquiries from news organizations seeking information and interviews with the chairman.
Bardella lists Leibovich among his friends on Facebook.
Jack Shafer at Slate:
Although I would be first to offer condolences to any reporter whose e-mails or inquiries to a press officer had been blithely shared with another reporter, I wouldn’t spend more than five seconds on cheering him up. A certain variety of Washington reporter lives and dies by leaks from government officials, so I don’t see why a government official leaking to a reporter about a national security matter is kosher, but a government official leaking about what reporters are asking him about is “egregiously unprofessional,” “compromising,” or “intolerable,” as Harris puts it.
As for Harris’ expectation that communications from reporters will be “held confidential,” well, I feel another lung coming up. Although I hope flacks will keep confidential my inquiries to them and their bosses, never in my journalistic career have I believed that a flack would keep his mouth zipped. Flacks and reporters are in the business of distributing information, not sequestering it. They move information like currency traders! They’re blabbermouths! This is one reason why reporting on the press is so easy, why the freshest journalistic recruit can start reporting on the press with almost no experience: Reporters love to give up their secrets and the secrets of others. Why? Because that’s what they’re trained to do! Flacks are almost as loose-mouthed.
Anybody composing e-mails these days should proceed on the assumption that what they write will be posted on the Web milliseconds after they send it. E-mail is not a secure form of communication. You might as well skywrite your questions to a press spokesman as put them in an e-mail. If Harris is so upset about his reporters’ e-mails getting leaked to Leibovich, he should have them use the phone. It’s not a leak-proof device, but it’s harder to forward a phone conversation unless you’re running a tape recorder.
Of course it is wrong for somebody to share correspondence without asking for permission first, but if that ethical constraint were universally observed, there would be no journalism. We’d all be rewriting GAO reports for a living.
Ryan Lizza at The New Yorker:
I’m somewhat mystified that Issa required an “investigation” to get to the bottom of this, because inside Issa’s office there was no secret about Bardella’s cooperation. When I was writing my profile of Issa, Bardella openly discussed his cooperation with Leibovich—and not just with me, but with his direct boss as well. For example, during a meeting with Bardella and Issa’s chief of staff, Dale Neugebauer, the three of us had a light-hearted discussion about how extensively Bardella was working with Leibovich.
“So you know about this, right?” I asked Neugebauer.
“Oh yeah. Yeah, he knows,” Bardella said.
“He [Bardella] just got to Washington and he’s got a book about him coming out,” I noted.
“I know, no kidding,” Neugebauer said.
In a later conversation, Bardella told me, “I’ve shared a lot with [Leibovich].” He added, “I have provided him with a lot of content. I BCC him on certain projects that I’m working on.” Bardella said he shared information that shows “this is how it happens” and “this is the conversation I’m having right now.”
“Do the other folks in the office know?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Bardella said, and he gave me an example of the type of stuff he shares: “Here’s this inquiry I got from a reporter. Here’s what I said to my staff about it, here’s the story, here’s the e-mail I just got from so-and-so, another reporter who’s upset that I gave his story to [someone else].”
At another point in one of our conversations, Bardella explained that getting news in partisan outlets— he cited the Daily Caller, the Washington Examiner, and the Washington Times—was easy, but it didn’t have the same impact as getting something in the mainstream press. He explained that he had recently leaked a report on ACORN to the New York Times, which had run what was, in his view, a good story for Issa. He then received an e-mail from an aide to Senator Susan Collins, he said, who complained about not being part of the decision to leak the report. Bardella said that he sent the e-mails documenting the whole drama to Leibovich.
“I blind-copied Mark in my response,” he said, “which was, given that my options were the Examiner or the New York Times, I’m not exactly going to apologize for the result that I just produced that you would not have. You had the report for four days and you didn’t do shit with it.”
This long back and forth was the lead-in to a Bardella quote I used in the piece:
[R]eporters e-mail me saying, “Hey, I’m writing this story on this thing. Do you think you guys might want to investigate it? If so, if you get some documents, can you give them to me?” I’m, like, “You guys are going to write that we’re the ones wanting to do all the investigating, but you guys are literally the ones trying to egg us on to do that!”
To me that last quote was one of the most important things Bardella told me. The rest of it—that offices clash over how to leak info and that bookers and reporters are competitive—is interesting but relatively well known, and not very relevant to a piece about Darrell Issa. But that Bardella accused reporters of offering to collaborate with Issa as he launches what will inevitably be partisan investigations of the Obama Administration seemed jaw-dropping. This is exactly the dysfunctional investigator/reporter dynamic that in the nineteen-nineties fed frenzies over every minor Clinton scandal. In his short-lived career, Bardella was witness to the fact that it was all starting over in 2011, now that there was again a Republican House and a Democratic President. From what I know of what Bardella shared, the beat reporters who cover Issa and engaged in this kind of game with Bardella will be the ones most embarrassed by the e-mails that Leibovich possesses.
Andrew Sullivan on Lizza:
Will Ryan now publish every email he has sent requesting an interview with someone on the Hill? If not, why not? And if another journalist somehow got access to his emails and published them, would he be fine with that? Or is it just because he’s buddies with Leibovich? Just asking. I’m not saying that there is nothing wrong with the journalist-source relationship right now. I’m saying there are ethical and unethical ways to point this out.
Michael D. Shear at NYT:
Politico, the news Web site that on Monday revealed that a Congressional aide had been secretly sharing e-mails with a New York Times reporter, itself sought correspondence between government officials in numerous federal agencies and other news organizations.
In a 2009 Freedom of Information Act request distributed to at least half a dozen cabinet departments, Ken Vogel, a Politico reporter, made a broad request for all government communications with reporters or editors of 16 news organizations.
The request — which was eventually fulfilled in part after being narrowed, a Politico editor said — asked for “copies of all correspondence,” including “but not limited to e-mails, notes, letters and phone messages — received from or sent to employees or officials” of a number of media organizations: the five major television networks; National Public Radio; the Web sites Huffington Post, ProPublica and TPM Muckraker; and The Chicago Sun-Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Washington Times. The request also included Politico.
Among the agencies that received the request were the Justice Department, the Energy Department, the Commerce Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Treasury Department and the Transportation Department.
Politico was the first to report this week that Kurt Bardella, the chief spokesman for Representative Darrell Issa of California, had been giving copies of Mr. Bardella’s e-mail correspondence to Mark Leibovich, a reporter for The New York Times who is on leave to write a book about the political culture in Washington.
Politico reported that its editor in chief, John F. Harris, wrote to Mr. Issa that the practice would be “egregiously unprofessional under any circumstances” and called for an investigation into whether “journalists may have had their reporting compromised by this activity.”
(Mr. Harris said in an e-mail Wednesday morning that he was not interested in a legal probe of the situation, but asked Issa directly for answers about the arrangement between Mr. Bardella and Mr. Leibovich.)
Mr. Harris said in an interview Tuesday that there was a difference between a routine request for correspondence under the Freedom of Information Act and an arrangement in which e-mails were passed on immediately to another reporter.
He called it “bad faith between journalists who had an expectation of privacy and the person representing Chairman Issa, who violated that.”
“I thought there was a professional expectation, widely held and legitimately held, and that was compromised.”
In the Politico request, Mr. Vogel hinted at one target of his search, noting that included in the response should be “invitations (including to social events).” In fact, several government officials said Tuesday that the broad request was eventually narrowed to a search for invitations from reporters to social events.
Ben Smith at Politico:
Over at The New York Times’s Caucus blog, Michael Shear (with assistance from three other reporters) responded this evening to POLITICO’s scoop about Kurt Bardella, a since-fired aide to Rep. Darrell Issa who shared reporters’ emails with Times reporter Mark Leibovich.
Shear reported that POLITICO’s Ken Vogel in 2009 filed a Freedom of Information Act seeking correspondence between “at least half a dozen cabinet departments” and representatives of various media outlets (including POLITICO).
Comparing Vogel’s request to the Bardella/Leibovich arrangement, under which Bardella apparently blind copied Leibovich on emails to unknowing reporters, Shear writes that Vogel’s “initial F.O.I. request was, if anything, broader in its reach than the dissemination of information from Mr. Bardella to Mr. Leibovich.”
I find the blog item a bit perplexing and out of character. The comparison, in any event, misses the point of Vogel’s request, whose results never wound up in a story.
The correspondence Vogel requested is considered public information under federal law, the Freedom of Information Act, while the emails Leibovich received from Bardella are not, because Congress — unlike executive branch agencies outside the White House (and some in it) — is not subject to the FOIA. There’s nothing terribly novel about seeking reporters’ emails with executive branch officials. The Columbia Journalism Review and Gawker forced the state of New York to release emails between reporters and David Paterson’s staff last year.
Leibovich’s email collection is for a book due out in 2012, which Leibovich’s publisher describes as an examination of “Washington’s culture of self-love.”
Vogel tells me his request wasn’t actually aimed at reporters. He was reporting for a follow-up story on the controversy over The Washington Post’s aborted plans to host “salons,” in which the Post offered lobbyists who paid as much as $250,000 off-the-record access to “those powerful few” — Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and even the paper’s own reporters and editors.
Shear writes “Mr. Vogel hinted at one target of his search, noting that included in the response should be ‘invitations (including to social events).’ In fact, several government officials said Tuesday that the broad request was eventually narrowed to a search for invitations from reporters to social events.”
Vogel says he never asked for “invitations from reporters.” He asked for emails with “employees or officials at the media outlets,” because he wasn’t looking for embarrassing emails from reporters, but rather for invitations to salons or other events.
This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with reporting on reporters and their emails, whether obtained from leaky staffers or public records. But the equivalence the Times went for in its headline isn’t there, either in the form or subject of Vogel’s reporting.
Dana Milbank at WaPo:
In the middle of all this is the book author, the New York Times’ Mark Leibovich, a friend of mine, who set out to write about this town’s culture and finds himself being sucked into the dysfunctional drama, which resembles nothing so much as a bad reality-TV show in which people put their honesty and judgment second to their quest to be players.
This particular episode begins with the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, another friend of mine (see what I mean by incestuous?) who wrote the definitive profile of Issa in January, describing his history as a car thief, among other things. Lizza also got Bardella to make some some surprisingly candid statements.
“I’m going to make Darrell Issa an actual political figure,” Bardella said. “I’m going to focus like a laser beam on the five hundred people here who care about this crap, and that’s it . . . so Darrell can expand his sphere of influence here among people who track who’s up, who’s down, who wins, who loses.”
Bardella also disclosed contempt for reporters he described as “lazy as hell. There are times when I pitch a story and they do it word for word. That’s just embarrassing. They’re adjusting to a time that demands less quality and more quantity.”
Lizza learned that Bardella had been sharing reporters’ obsequious e-mails with Leibovich. Lizza didn’t include the anecdote because Bardella wasn’t his focus, but word spread via journalistic pillow-talk after Lizza mentioned it in conversations, eventually making its way to Politico. That publication had done more than any other to increase Issa’s profile, with items such as “Issa aims to unmask health care deals” and “Sheriff Issa’s top six targets.”
Put on your PJs: It’s about to get even cozier. Politico reporters were making inquiries on Friday about their e-mails being forwarded to Leibovich, but on Saturday night they partied with Leibovich at the American Legion Hall on Capitol Hill for the 40th birthday party of Politico’s executive editor, Jim VandeHei.
A few hours before the party, Leibovich got a call from Politico’s editor-in-chief, John Harris – who, along with VandeHei and reporter Mike Allen, used to work at The Post with Leibovich (and me! So very cozy!). “Couldn’t this wait until VandeHei’s party?” Leibovich joked to Harris.
The bash itself was a celebration of the politically powerful. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and White House official Austan Goolsbee joined the likes of Bob Woodward and Tom Brokaw in a video tribute to VandeHei. The party received a 600-word write-up, which included Leibovich’s attendance, in Allen’s Politico Playbook the next day.
Also Sunday, Politico’s Harris wrote to Issa calling for an investigation into the “egregiously unprofessional” release of e-mails. On Monday, Politico published a story on the controversy co-written by Marin Cogan, a friend of Lizza’s.
From what I understand, the e-mails won’t look good for Politico if and when Leibovich releases them. There are expected to be many from Allen and reporter Jake Sherman. There could be embarrassments for other outlets, including The Post, that played footsie with the 27-year-old Bardella as part of a culture in which journalists implicitly provide positive coverage in exchange for tidbits of news.
But this isn’t real news. The items Bardella fed journalists were “exclusive” previews of announcements designed to make Issa look good. Now that Bardella has been fired, Issa has been embarrassed and a few reporters are set to be humiliated, it might be a good time for those who cover the news to regain a sense of detachment from those who make the news.
Self-absorption to the point of parody? Check. Thinly-disguised “news” stories that serve journalists’ own personal or business interests? Check. Evidence that “journalistic ethics” is taking on the status of an oxymoron? Check. In the world of celebrity journalists, it’s perhaps to be expected that some news reporters and editors have come to regard themselves as the story, or, at the very least, to become convinced that their concerns and woes as the most fascinating part of the story. (Hence, hours of Cooper Anderson’s knock on the head in Cairo.) For people in the business of providing “context” and “perspective” that’s a pretty big character flaw.