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Beltway Reporters' Garters Popping In Aftermath Of Bardella Email Flap

Darrell Issa

First Posted: 03/02/11 01:03 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:35 PM ET

On Tuesday afternoon, Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), was fired after it came to light that he had shared emails from reporters with Mark Leibovich, a New York Times reporter who is currently working on a book about the incestuousness nature of Beltway media culture.

Issa's hand was forced by Politico, which blew open the story this week -- the implication being that their reporters' emails were among those that were shared -- compelling Issa to launch an inquiry into what was, by all appearances, something of an open secret on Capitol Hill.

As you might expect, in the hours since Bardella was sacked, everyone's garters are popping open everywhere.

Politico studded their front page with further coverage of the story, including one piece that emphasized that Bardella was a notorious self-promoter. Slate's Jack Shafer dropped on Politico editor John F. Harris like a ton of bricks, characterizing his response as an "overreaction" and encouraging Harris to "go soak your head." And after staying as far away from the emerging flap as possible, Leibovich's paper finally reported on the matter in a Caucus blog item that did as much excuse-making as it did informing.

The drama continued Wednesday. Ryan Lizza, whose New Yorker profile of Issa contained a much-ballyhooed quote from Bardella in which he broadly characterized the Beltway media as "lazy as hell," put a piece up describing in detail the sorts of emails that Bardella had been routinely sharing with Leibovich.

Bardella seems to have primarily motivated by a desire to defend his boss to Leibovich. As a matter of course, Bardella routinely observed reporters publicly ripping Issa for being a publicity-seeker, while behind the scenes they were at Bardella's door asking for scoops and, in some cases, trying to goad Issa into doing the legwork on matters that the reporters themselves wanted investigated.

Lizza scoffed at the idea that Issa had to launch an inquiry into the matter:

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.

None of that looks particularly good for Issa, who will likely have to provide answers for the eventual "what did he know and when did he know it" inquiry.

But that's about as substantive as the aftermath of Bardella's firing has gotten. Elsewhere, Beltway reporters have fallen back on noisy cattiness. The Times, after finally getting into the matter with the aforementioned blog post, leapt back into the fray with a piece essentially asserting that Politico's complaints about email sharing were hypocritical because their own Ken Vogel had also sought the email correspondence of reporters from 16 media organizations in a wide-ranging multi-agency Freedom of Information Act request.

Shots fired, shots returned, this time by Politico's Ben Smith, who lowered his shoulder and cross-checked Michael Shear, the author of the NYT piece, and the other reporters who contributed to it:

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.

[...]

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.

I think you have to give this round to Smith.

Speaking of the Washington Post, their columnist Dana Milbank also sounded off on the matter with a piece in which he described the Bardella flap as "bad reality TV," quipping, "If Washington's political culture gets any more incestuous, our children are going to be born with extra fingers." That's a pretty good point, but it would have, perhaps, been made better by someone who did not go on to point out that he was good friends with many of the central figures in the drama -- like Lizza and Leibovich -- before lapsing into descriptions of various Beltway social events that one would only know about if they were themselves a prominent figure in all the incestuousness.

High-handed? Politico's Mike Allen sure thought so. From this morning's Playbook:

YA CAN'T MAKE IT UP: Dana Milbank decries Washington's incestuous political culture. http://wapo.st/h8SX2v See you at Tammy's, Dana!

And finally, in Politico's "Morning Huddle," Jonathan Allen and Jake Sherman opine:

Even the term incestuous doesn't seem to do justice to this series of stories. But it is interesting to see how many Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists one newspaper will assign to a single story to try to delegitimize another news organization's scoop -- especially when the scoop wasn't really about the newspaper or its reporter so much as the practices of a congressional aide.

And that's a point that might have been made better by someone who isn't already hyper-invested in this story.

But that's where things stand today, in a cacophony of pure backbiting. It remains to be seen how all of this plays out in the real world, where Darrell Issa is potentially on the hook for enabling all of this to happen in the first place. But in the short term, the one thing that's certain is that the underlying thesis of Mark Leibovich's book about the incestuous self-involvement of Beltway reporters is being thrillingly confirmed.

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