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Bardella Email Scandal Reveals Sorry State of DC Journalism

The Kart Bardella email scandal really does expose the political/media incestuousness of Washington, as Dana Milbank manages to say in a decent article. We’ll leave aside for a second the fact that Milbank is completely caught up in that culture and compromised by it. But let that go. In fact, at least Milbank addresses it.

Issa, a man with subpoena power, was having his staff work as his personal publicists rather than doing honest government work. Issa’s spokesman, Kurt Bardella, was justifiably fired for his double dealings with reporters. And reporters were (or soon will be) exposed as currying favor with the powerful.

In the middle of all this is the book author, the New York Times’ Mark Leibovich, a friend of mine, who set out to write about this town’s culture and finds himself being sucked into the dysfunctional drama, which resembles nothing so much as a bad reality-TV show in which people put their honesty and judgment second to their quest to be players […]

Bardella also disclosed contempt for reporters he described as “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.”

Lizza learned that Bardella had been sharing reporters’ obsequious e-mails with Leibovich. Lizza didn’t include the anecdote because Bardella wasn’t his focus, but word spread via journalistic pillow-talk after Lizza mentioned it in conversations, eventually making its way to Politico. That publication had done more than any other to increase Issa’s profile, with items such as “Issa aims to unmask health care deals” and “Sheriff Issa’s top six targets.”

I don’t see how Bardella can even be faulted for his statement about lazy reporters. Whether a function of time or simply a lack of understanding of basic issues, I can show you stories that line up perfectly with press releases I get an hour before. In this time of insta-publishing, a slick PR agent can get from his computer to the front page of a newspaper in record time. And that’s especially true with the access journalists at Politico. The deal was this: if you report everything precisely as I want it, you will get the story five minutes before your competitors. This is essentially how Mike Allen has made his career, through flattery and stenography.

Mark Leibovich, according to Milbank, at the same time while he was unethically obtaining all these personal emails between Bardella and reporters, was partying with those same reporters at fetes which included members of Congress. Welcome to Washington.

I love how Marc Ambinder, who plies his stock in trade with this kind of access journalism, tries to defend Bardella as if that’s the point.

More frequently than reporters and their sources would like to admit, the lines are blurred. The best we can do is to keep our word to the people we give it to. If we don’t, we develop a reputation for being sleazy.

And where trust is violated, a conversation between an editor and a chief of staff can usually solve the problem without ruining the career of someone who fell victim to the competitive pressures created by a system he had no hand in creating. We don’t know the extent to which Bardella shared e-mails with Leibovich, so we don’t know how egregious his conduct was. But frankly, this sort of thing happens all the time. And as Chuck Todd Tweeted yesterday, “many news orgs regularly have issues with sources; rarely do those issues go so public.” He’s right.

Nobody cares who shared emails with who, really, except for the Gang of 500 at the center of the scandal. It’s the CONTENT of the emails. It’s the fact that so-called reporters think they’re doing their jobs by begging for scraps so they can scoop their neighbor by 5 minutes, and in the process becoming conduits for political operatives. This culture of access then leads to a news landscape where nobody is digging more than a shovel beyond the surface.

Email is just not secure, and nobody should treat it like it is. That’s not the problem. The problem is the entire culture of Washington journalism that this reveals.

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David Dayen

David Dayen