All it was missing was the siren. Late Monday night, Politico broke the news that a congressman’s spokesman may have provided a reporter with various e-mails he had exchanged with other reporters.
Not just any congressman, mind you, but Darrell Issa, the hot (for Washington) property who heads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. And not just any spokesman, but Issa’s twenty-seven-year-old press maven, Kurt Bardella, who’s made more memorable press appearances than the bulk of his boss’s colleagues.
The reporter is also something of a boldface name, as these things go: Mark Leibovich, a deft profile writer for The New York Times, who is currently on leave writing a book on the rather fishbowl-y topic of Washington’s culture of self-love and celebrity.
Naturally, there’s no way you could write such a tome without getting into the routine (and at least routinely semi-unseemly) interplay between political flacks and reporters. One exceptionally good way to do that would be to get some e-mails documenting requests for, say, some semi-celebrity congressman’s time, or for information about his headline-grabbing investigations.
While details remain a tad sketchy, Bardella seems to have been willing to provide Leibovich with those kind of goods. When Politico reporters heard what Bardella was up to, word got back to their editor-in-chief, John Harris. He told CJR he was concerned that the practice might be “endemic” and that it might include some e-mails from his staff.
Considering the book project was, according to National Journal, inspired by Leibovich’s April 2010 New York Times Magazine profile of Politico’s Mike Allen and his morning “Playbook” e-mail, that seems a safe bet. Dana Milbank, friends with just about everyone in this tale, writes that from what he “understand[s]” many of the shared e-mails are from Allen and a younger Politico reporter and “won’t look good” if released.
Over the weekend, Harris wrote Issa a scathing letter of complaint, which he declined to provide. Its published excerpts express concerns that are primarily commercial: that Bardella may have been exposing scoops-in-progress to Leibovich.
A statement Issa released on Tuesday announced that he was firing Bardella, saying that an investigation had concluded Bardella shared his “own correspondence with reporters” with Leibovich.
Bardella’s departure confirms that doing so wasn’t the smartest idea, career-wise, and that it was clearly unappreciated. But it raises a tough question: When are news organizations justified in feeling that information about their activities shouldn’t be shared for public consumption?
People from all walks of life are often upset when they see, splashed in print, information they assumed was to be kept secret. Unfortunately, putting people in that situation is often the very definition of reporting.
It’s a rare thing indeed for a journalist to get upset about protected information coming from someone else who, in dishing, breaks an explicit commitment they held with some other party. Respecting non-disclosure agreements, classification markings, grand jury secrets, corporate secrets, and so on? Journalists will move heaven and earth to find people willing to violate those promises.
But here it’s safe to assume we’re not even talking about that: there’s no evidence Bardella was under any explicit commitment to keep these e-mails to himself.
Slate’s Jack Shafer writes that it’s foolish to expect any PR-guy, because of some notion of discretion, not to pass on what they’ve heard. “Flacks and reporters are in the business of distributing information, not sequestering it,” Shafer wrote. “They’re blabbermouths!”
But Harris argues that Bardella erred by violating what he maintains is a widely held expectation that spokespeople shouldn’t kiss and tell.
“I think we have an expectation when talking with people who represent public officials that those communications are not shared with other reporters,” Harris told CJR. “I’m not asserting some sacred constitutional right. I’m asserting a clear, good faith understanding between professionals—journalists and people who are paid to represent public officials—that they’re not leaking the goddammed stuff to other journalists. I don’t think that’s a difficult principle to understand.”
Of course, it’s common for reporters to ask a source to pass on e-mails that might reveal something about a story. Believe it or not, sometimes that happens without the consent of one (or more) parties to the e-mail, parties who may have had every expectation that their e-mails would remain private.
Take this story by Politico’s Ben Smith reporting on a dodgy robocall outfit that relies on “a series of e-mails provided to Politico by three Republican campaigns.” Did any of them clear their sharing with the suspect salesman before passing them on? Did he expect they might end up in print?
And here’s Politico’s Alex Isenstadt writing up doubts about Dan Coats’s then-potential Senate candidacy, as expressed in an e-mail chain among conservative activists in Indiana. Did all of them know this chain would be given to Politico?