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Thursday, July 4, 2013

White House Oppo and Staff-Media Relations

In the summer of 2010, with Republicans poised to take over the House and Rep.Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) in line to lead the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the White House started urging reporters to write negative stories about the congressman’s past, a new book says.
New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich describes what he says were the anti-Issa efforts in “This Town,” a condemnation of Washington self-obsession and self-promotion, a copy of which was obtained by the Washington Post.
 Leibovich writes in a book excerpt in The New York Times Magazine.
Democrats had begun circulating fat opposition files on the prospective chairman. Oppo about Issa always begins with a Los Angeles Times exposé published during his unsuccessful run for the Senate in 1998. The story details what Issa has described as his “colorful youth” — a period that apparently stretched well into his 20s. He pleaded guilty to carrying an unregistered pistol in 1972 and, with his brother William, was indicted on felony charges related to car thefts in 1972 and 1980. (The first case was eventually dismissed; prosecutors dropped the charges on the second.)
I had no idea of Issa’s history until I got a call one summer afternoon from the White House, peddling oppo. Bill Burton, then the deputy press secretary at the White House, urged me (in the most sheepish and above-it-all tones) to spend some time “getting to know Darrell Issa.” As an hors d’oeuvre, Burton mentioned the auto thefts. Interesting, I thought. And kind of funny, since Issa made his fortune selling car alarms.
Not long after, Issa sat for a long interview with me in his office. It was mostly unmemorable, though he twice launched into tangential assaults on Eric Lichtblau, who wrote the L.A. Times story and is now a colleague of mine at The Times. After I made a fact-checking inquiry with Bardella the next day about the old auto-theft charge, a very agitated Issa called minutes later, suggesting that I just have “that hatchet man Lichtblau” write the story for me.
Some more backstory:

In 2011, Politico reported:
Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the powerful Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has launched an inquiry into whether spokesman Kurt Bardella improperly shared e-mails from other reporters with a New York Times reporter writing a book on Washington’s political culture, POLITICO has learned.
Bardella has been cooperating extensively with the Times’s Mark Leibovich on the book, and Issa told POLITICO Monday that he would “get to the bottom” of exactly what Bardella shared with Leibovich.
The New York Times soon reported:
Politico, the news Web site that on Monday revealed that a Congressional aide had been secretly sharing e-mails with a New York Times reporter, itself sought correspondence between government officials in numerous federal agencies and other news organizations.
In a 2009 Freedom of Information Act request distributed to at least half a dozen cabinet departments, Ken Vogel, a Politico reporter, made a broad request for all government communications with reporters or editors of 16 news organizations.
Politico reported that its editor in chief, John F. Harris, wrote to Mr. Issa that the practice would be “egregiously unprofessional under any circumstances” and called for an investigation into whether “journalists may have had their reporting compromised by this activity.”
(Mr. Harris said in an e-mail Wednesday morning that he was not interested in a legal probe of the situation, but asked Issa directly for answers about the arrangement between Mr. Bardella and Mr. Leibovich.)
Mr. Harris said in an interview Tuesday that there was a difference between a routine request for correspondence under the Freedom of Information Act and an arrangement in which e-mails were passed on immediately to another reporter.
He called it “bad faith between journalists who had an expectation of privacy and the person representing Chairman Issa, who violated that.”
Ryan Lizza wrote at The New Yorker:
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.
This long back and forth was the lead-in to a Bardella quote I used in the piece:
[R]eporters e-mail me saying, “Hey, I’m writing this story on this thing. Do you think you guys might want to investigate it? If so, if you get some documents, can you give them to me?” I’m, like, “You guys are going to write that we’re the ones wanting to do all the investigating, but you guys are literally the ones trying to egg us on to do that!”
To me that last quote was one of the most important things Bardella told me. The rest of it—that offices clash over how to leak info and that bookers and reporters are competitive—is interesting but relatively well known, and not very relevant to a piece about Darrell Issa. But that Bardella accused reporters of offering to collaborate with Issa as he launches what will inevitably be partisan investigations of the Obama Administration seemed jaw-dropping. This is exactly the dysfunctional investigator/reporter dynamic that in the nineteen-nineties fed frenzies over every minor Clinton scandal. In his short-lived career, Bardella was witness to the fact that it was all starting over in 2011, now that there was again a Republican House and a Democratic President. From what I know of what Bardella shared, the beat reporters who cover Issa and engaged in this kind of game with Bardella will be the ones most embarrassed by the e-mails that Leibovich possesses.