We all knew Ryan Lizza’s profile of Darrell Issa was coming. After all, it was a call from Lizza that reminded The Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz of that error in his own Issa profile published back on November 27—a fact Kurtz remembered to mention to Politico’s Keach Hagey last week. (Briefly, Kurtz believed he was speaking to Issa on the phone for the piece when he actually was speaking to Issa’s spokesman, Kurt Bardella. That explained why Kurtz noted in the article Issa’s “tendency to refer to himself in the third person.” He did not correct until Lizza called and questioned him about it while doing his own research for his Issa story, almost two months later.)
Lizza’s profile is out today in The New Yorker, both online and in the magazine, and it recalls in structure and content the film Shattered Glass, which detailed the unraveling of shamed New Republic reporter Stephen Glass. First, we are presented with the standard climb-the-ladder story that led to Issa becoming the newly elected chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform—one of six children, he grew up in Cleveland, was an exemplary army serviceman, and made millions as a car alarm entrepreneur (his voice is on several thousand “Please step away from the car” warnings), before the move into politics. But the bio jackknifes a third of the way into the piece, when Lizza brings all that has come before into sharp relief, and we begin to see the need for earlier, unsettling qualifiers like, “according to one version of Issa’s official biography.” This is about where the piece u-turns.
Many politicians have committed indiscretions in earlier years: maybe they had an affair or hired an illegal immigrant as a nanny. Issa, it turned out, had, among other things, been indicted for stealing a car, arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, and accused by former associates of burning down a building.
Lizza is diligent in parsing out the details of all of those claims—getting the records, speaking to Issa’s accusers, and in one excruciating section towards the end, talking through them with Issa, with his wife, and Bardella present. For a taste of the he-said/she-said that results, here is Lizza’s outlining of the circumstantial evidence that suggested Issa may have burned down his own “Steal Stopper” alarm factory.
a fire-analysis report commissioned by the St. Paul insurance company, and dated October 19, 1982, a month after the incident, concluded that the fire was “incendiary.” The report cited “suspicious burn patterns,” such as “two separate major areas of origin,” and it said, “No accidental source of heating power was located at either of these two major areas of origin.” The manner in which stacks of cardboard boxes burned was inconsistent with an accidental fire. A flammable liquid appeared to have been poured over the boxes. The blue flames seen emanating from the roof were evidence, according to the investigators, of burning carbon monoxide that is produced when an accelerant like gasoline ignites. The black smoke was also a clue. “Such black smoke normally occurs in a fire only when a hydrocarbon is burning,” the report said.
Joey Adkins, the former owner of Steal Stopper, provided the main evidence against Issa. On the afternoon of September 20, 1982, in a lengthy recorded interview with an insurance investigator, he described a series of suspicious actions by Issa before the fire. Adkins, who still worked for Steal Stopper, said that Issa removed the company’s Apple II computer from the building, including “all hardware, all software, all the instruction books,” and also “the discs for accounts payable, accounts receivable, customer list, everything.” According to Adkins, Issa also transferred a copy of every design used by Steal Stopper from a filing cabinet to a fireproof box. He also said that Issa put in the box some important silk screens used in the production of circuit boards. Insurance officials noted that, less than three weeks before the fire, Issa had increased his insurance from a hundred thousand dollars to four hundred and sixty-two thousand dollars. “Quite frankly,” Adkins told the investigator, “I feel the man set the fire.”
Issa told me that he did not set the fire at the Quantum factory in 1982, and he is furious that the story has dogged him. He lashed out at Eric Lichtblau, the New York Times reporter who, in 1998, while working for the Los Angeles Times, first aired allegations from Issa’s former business partner Joey Adkins. Lichtblau, Issa charged, “is a notorious hatchet man.” (“Everything in that story was accurate,” Lichtblau told me in response. “The picture that emerged of his early start in Cleveland was very different from the Horatio Alger story he had adopted.”)
Adkins, both Issa brothers said, is not credible. William told me that Adkins was “a lowlife.” The morning after the fire, Darrell said, Adkins took most of the Steal Stopper merchandise that wasn’t damaged, hauled it away, and set up a rival business across town. (Adkins told me it was his understanding that the inventory would be scrapped, so he took it.)
Issa seemed unfamiliar with the insurance company’s fire-analysis report concluding that the fire was arson, and said that, as far as he knew, it was officially declared accidental. He blamed the local fire department for letting the fire get out of hand. “If the fire department had done a competent job and turned off the natural-gas line, there would’ve been de-minimis damage,” he said. “They fought the fire for a couple of hours before they realized that the fire is being fed by a gas line from an overhead heater that had ruptured early on in the fire. And if there’s a story, the story is ‘Fire department screws up, small fire becomes devastating fire.’ ” If Issa is right, the natural gas could explain the blue flames that insurance investigators cited as evidence of arson, although it wouldn’t explain the suspected presence of an accelerant.
Overall, the piece is a fascinating read and a must-see primer on Issa as he looks to define himself in his new role. Though much of Lizza’s reporting isn’t necessarily new—part of the reason Issa faces the music and deals with the accusations so directly is that he’s been doing so for years—but it is comprehensively researched and cogently put together. And ultimately, it’s pretty damning whether you believe Issa’s accusers or his most oft-used response: it was my brother.
As mentioned, though, the most interesting element of this profile might be the controversy it stirred over at The Daily Beast. First, the almost otherworldliness of Kurtz’s mistake, then the near-two months it took to correct it, followed by the speculation as to why it had taken so long. Finally, last week, there was the relentless Twitter campaign by The Daily’s Hunter Walker to get Kurtz to Tweet a correction. Walker hounded @HowardKurtz for a Twitter correction with over 150 messages. (Disclosure: Walker is a former classmate and a friend and thus any suggestion that Walker was riding Kurtz for a bit of attention will be implied and not stated). Walker’s logic: it would not have been hard to Tweet a correction before it slipped your mind, and in an age of personalized Twitter streams and Facebook pages, you are obliged to—especially if your story was promoted through both media.
Kurt Bardella, the spokesperson who played Issa in that Kurtz interview, addresses the error directly in Lizza’s profile—no doubt part of the reason Lizza phoned Kurtz to check in. And Bardella—a cocky twenty-seven year-old D.C. press kid who later in the piece says he likes to admire God’s work on the promo models, or “chicks,” at trade shows—pulls no punches about the media, and his role in it.
Over lunch at Bistro Bis, a French restaurant near the Capitol, Bardella was surprisingly open in his disparagement of the media. He said, “Some people in the press, I think, are just 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. And it works to my advantage most of the time, because I think most reporters have liked me packaging things for them. Most people will opt for what’s easier, so they can move on to the next thing. Reporters are measured by how often their stuff gets on Drudge. It’s a bad way to be, but it’s reality.”
He marvelled that the Daily Beast recently reported that Issa was fond of referring to himself in the third person. The reporter who wrote the story, Howard Kurtz, had in fact been interviewing Bardella when he thought he was talking to the congressman on the phone. (Kurtz later said that Bardella didn’t indicate that he wasn’t Issa when they spoke.) “I think anyone who knows me well enough knows I’m far too fond of myself to abdicate my own identity in favor of someone else’s,” Bardella told me.
Issa himself then outlines the media strategy he and Bardella are employing now that Issa is playing on the national stage.
The task for Issa Enterprises is thus to help Issa make the change from an outsider, grandstanding for talk-radio partisans and conservative bloggers, to a responsible committee chairman. “You’ve got to move from the right to the center,” Issa told me. “If there was a blog with five listeners or viewers, I had to be on it. Now I have to be on fewer media, but more substantive media. What we’re really trying to do is move an agenda, and that requires that we have the support of the American people and at least a big chunk of Democrats.”
It’s somewhat gratifying to imagine that Bardella—who has some cogent points, even if they were grotesquely couched—might be less cocky after reading Lizza’s article. This is no pre-packaged grab for Drudge. And this is the opposite of lazy. This is the substantive media. And its verdict on his boss is one of the few embarrassing things about it.
Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.
Tags: Howard Kurtz, Issa, New Yorker