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?
And here’s Smith again using e-mails provided by a campaign to illuminate an alleged pay-to-play, money-for-endorsement shakedown. Did the complaining campaign clear that with the fixer before passing them on?
A similar list could be compiled from just about any news organization, because having someone pass you someone else’s e-mail without their consent isn’t much more than the modern equivalent of asking someone to tell their side of a conversation without the other party’s consent.
And late on Tuesday, The New York Times reported that Ken Vogel, a Political reporter, had in 2009 filed Freedom of Information Act requests seeking all “e-mails, notes, letters and phone messages” between reporters at the nation’s major news outlets and government employees working at more than half a dozen executive branch agencies and departments.
Granted, no two people are the same, and flacks are a special kind of person. They’re charged with the, um, tending of reporters. Again, that makes what Bardella did not so nice, and not so smart with regards to maintaining a working relationship with the many reporters e-mailing him who are not named Mark Leibovich. (Or, as it turns out, not so smart from the point of view of keeping his job.)
As a thought experiment, let’s say Bardella wasn’t a flack, and instead was a policy aide who regularly received e-mails from industry lobbyists. He passes some of those on to a reporter. When the lobbyist’s boss learns that some of these e-mails had been leaked, he calls the congressman and raises hell. The congressman just might fire that aide, but it’s pretty clear where most journalists’ sympathies would lie.
Harris argues that news organizations should be treated differently than other institutions when being reported on by other news organizations.
“Newsgathering operations of a news organization are, in my view, based on what I’m responsible for,” Harris said, “are entitled to some measure of deference and respect. It’s just simply not a routine thing to be trying to insert yourself into the newsgathering operations of a newsgathering organization. It would be very hard for any of us to do our work.”
Politico has a history of reporting on news organizations and the media swirl—indeed, in the site’s early days, executive editor Jim VandeHei memorably promised that they would report on some of journalism’s “state secrets.” Despite that, Harris told CJR that Politico would only use reporter’s e-mails obtained by simple request from a flack “for a damn good reason” and as the “result of very serious deliberation.”
“I’m speaking carefully because I have not encountered this situation before or thought it all the way through,” admitted Harris. “It’s rare in difficult journalistic situations where you are actually talking about absolutes. Usually these questions are complicated or difficult because you are keeping about competing values.”
The potential that Leibovich might have gotten and may publish an embarrassing e-mail or two is high. If so, good. A book that looks at the D.C. media nexus and doesn’t offer someone a measure of embarrassment would be like a film on the desert showing no sand.
Despite being prime makers of the Washington celebrity culture, journalists often don’t appreciate when common tools of reporting are turned on them. That fact might make for a good book chapter, don’t you think?