Kurt Bardella, the now former Deputy Communications Director for House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrel Issa, has accomplished a very rare feat for Washington; angering both his politician boss and the media at the same time.
In the story broken Monday by Politico, Bardella, a 27-year-old staffer known for his speedy rise and prior prickly brushes with the media, is accused of sharing private emails between him and Politico reporters as part of a deal with the New York Times' Mark Leibovich who is currently researching a book on Washington political culture. Growing suspicions among journalists who dealt with Bardella that the staffer was in fact passing information on to Leibovich, and evidence that the data passed on included emails from Politico reporters, prompted Politico Editor-in-Chief John F. Harris to send a letter to Issa in which he voiced concerns that "POLITICO journalists may have had their reporting compromised by this activity."
Not surprisingly, Rep. Issa moved quickly to remove Bardella, saying in a released statement that, "though limited, these actions were highly inappropriate, a basic breach of trust with the reporters it was his job to assist, and inconsistent with established communications office policies." Though Rep. Issa initially gave Bardella permission to cooperate with Leibovich on his book, the Congressman made it clear that he neither approved nor condoned his staffer's actions with regards to the leaked emails.
In Tuesday's issue of POLITICO Playbook, Mike Allen dished out disapproval to both Congressman Issa and his young staffer, writing that even if Issa had given permission to Bardella provide information for Leibovich's book, "aides are unsure why Issa would need to meet with Leibovich to decide whether it's a good idea for the House majority to be secretly shoveling internal documents to an author who has a lucrative contract to expose Washington as incestuous."
In an ironic twist however, it appears that Mark Leibovich, through no grand scheme of his own, has found himself in the midst of a far more interesting Washington dust-up and book-worthy series of events than he could have possibly planned. A powerful committee chairman deeply embarrassed by a young aid's backroom dealings in information; Politico, the ultimate DC-centric news organization, receiving a taste of its own medicine when its emails are leaked, all against the background of the current news and information driven political climate may have revealed far more about the nature of DC politico-media culture than the emails themselves.
Politico's own reaction to Bardella's email sharing arrangement provides revealing insight into how Washington's must-read source for political news operates and views itself within the greater media scene. While it's easy to see why learning that your emails had been shared with another reporter would rile any journalist, it's the opinion of some media commentators, including Slate's Jack Shafer, that Politico's full-blown, big guns response to the controversy has been more than overblown. As Shafer wrote yesterday for Slate's Press Box blog, "the very foundation of reporting the news is encouraging unprofessional, compromising, and intolerable behaviors from sources to get their hands on "proprietary" information. It's what Politico does--quite well, I should add--every day." Emails fly around Washington daily, some of them are picked up by reporters and truly confidential conversations are often encrypted or held in person. The fact that Politico, which Michael Shear of the New York Times reports is itself well known for having submitted its own Freedom of Information Act requests specifically for email correspondence between Hill staffers and journalists from other news outlets, would balk so quickly at the sharing of its information is at best hypocritical and at worst, a bit suspect.
Why Politico would be so worried about emails shared with the author of a book slated to be published months from now is another question. As reported by Politico's own Mike Allen, Leibovich's book is said to revolve around, "a look at the culture of Washington in the contemporary age (of new media, of instant celebrity, of usual suspects, old and new) ... Modern D.C. is a nuanced, changing and a fascinating place to be working/living. Are there small-town, incestuous and overly transactional elements (and people) here? Absolutely. But there are also many people/entities that you can root for. ... All will be reflected in the book."
While the contents of the shared emails is said to be "mundane" and representative only of the daily back and forth between reporters and press staffers, there's no telling at this point what "mundane" means in this case and how that might reflect on Politico as an organization. While it's a fantastic news source staffed by some of the best political journalists in the business, Politico has in the past drawn the criticism that it thrives on and at times promotes the "small-town" and "overly transactional" elements of Washington. As Mark Leibovich himself wrote in a New York Times profile piece on Politico journalist and Politico Playbook publisher Mike Allen, "Politico wants to "drive the conversation" in the new-media landscape of the 21st Century. It wants to "win" every news cycle by being first with a morsel of information, whether or not the morsel proves relevant, or even correct, in the long run -- and whether the long run proves to be measured in days, hours or minutes."
Politico wants to "drive the morning," "win the day," break important stories, sell ads and make a profit, but it also deeply wants to be respected. Though it's emerged in a relatively short amount of time as a, if not the, force to be reckoned with in political media, Politico's reaction to the Bardella story suggests it is an organization keenly aware of its own reputation and the image it projects. Politico and its reporters must walk a fine line between being viewed as well-connected insiders, and being seen as mouthpieces for politicians or as too eager to jump at the smallest scrap of information. Either way, Mark Leibovich's book stands a good chance of trying to place Politico and other news outlets on one side or the other of this line.