The Flack Who Shared Too Much

When can a news organization expect silence?

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?

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?

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR. Tags: , , , , ,