Press Box

Back Scratching, Washington Style

The saga of Rep. Darrell Issa’s now-fired spokesman illustrates how the Washington reporter-source relationship works.

If sucking up to important sources were a crime, 95 percent of all Washington journalists would be doing time right now. It’s not that Washington journalists love kissing ass—though most of them excel at it—it’s that the high ratio of powerful sources to journalists almost demands it. In order to get his foot in an important door, a reporter must at the very least be very charming or—if he has the energy to dial the rheostat up—go totally obsequious in his treatment of a source.

Like most romancing, the heavy flattery reporters extend is largely symbolic, a function of their need to get the source’s attention. Reporters are an anxious bunch, fully aware that they’re only as good as their last story, so they must tend and protect their sources. But ultimately, the accurate measure of a reporter is not how much sweet-talk he tosses at important sources but what sort of stories he writes at the end of the courtship. Only a purist believes that the only viable method of gathering news is shouting “Confirm or deny!? Confirm or deny!?” in the faces of the people he covers.

Which brings us to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and his sacking yesterday of spokesman Kurt Bardella for having shared e-mails from reporters with New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich. The e-mails, not yet released, are purported to be filled with blandishments that will bring huge shame upon reporters and their publications—if and when they are published. Without naming any reporters’ names, a blog item by New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza hints at what sort of fawning e-mails Bardella disclosed to Leibovich.

Lizza, who recently profiled Issa, writes, “Bardella accused reporters of offering to collaborate with Issa as he launches what will inevitably be partisan investigations of the Obama Administration,” and, “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.”

Writing in today’s Washington Post, columnist Dana Milbank adds, “From what I understand, the e-mails won’t look good for Politico if and when Leibovich releases them. There are expected to be many from [Politico reporter Mike] Allen and [Politico] reporter Jake Sherman. There could be embarrassments for other outlets, including the Post, that played footsie with the 27-year-old Bardella as part of a culture in which journalists implicitly provide positive coverage in exchange for tidbits of news.”

Until Leibovich releases the e-mails in the Times or folds them into the book he’s writing about Washington’s political culture, we won’t really know who traded what for what, and who got the best of the deal. But that something was traded in the reporting of a piece shouldn’t shock anyone who has ever read a newspaper. Nor should the fact that the party now running the House is merchandising its “investigations” to the press. Such merchandising has been a known quantity for more than a century.

Likewise, the fact that sources and reporters sometimes wear masks as they negotiate their exchanges of information shouldn’t shock, either. Sources and reporters play the same sort of mind games with one another that employees do with their bosses, teachers do with their students, and plumbers do with the downtrodden whose toilets leak. I’m certain that nuns run similar cons on the mother superior at convents.

Faux scandals such as the one unfolding in Issa’s office stand to remind us that every reader needs to be his own press critic, constantly asking himself if the publication he’s reading—or the channel he is watching—is in the tank for his sources. If a story reads a lot like a press release, say, it’s the first to report that Rep. Cheese is going to run for speaker of the House, it probably is a gussied-up press release.

Such an announcement is still news, of course, but of the least satisfying kind because it has not been mixed with other ingredients and cooked properly. If a publication runs too many hollow news nuggets, then you’re safe to assume that the relationship between sources and reporter is too cozy, and that you should calibrate your reading accordingly. The best way to be your own press critic is to consume news from a variety of suppliers, to ask yourself why the Gazette got the story instead of the Bugle, and to be no more gullible in your news consumption than you are when buying a used car.

Reporters, especially beat reporters such as the ones who cover members of Congress, are unusually dependent on sources like Bardella, which is why he was able to game them so aggressively. Lizza charts a pecking order of Washington journalism that runs roughly from the New York Times (at the top) to the Daily Caller, the Washington Examiner, and the Washington Times (at the bottom). The best leaks of information, such as the ACORN report that Bardella dispensed, go to the Times. More mundane or partisan stuff often goes to the smaller players. In Bardella’s case, we won’t know the exact distribution of “scoops” or how kiss-assy which reporters were, until Leibovich drops the bomb.

Washington back scratching, like all grooming behaviors, produces stability and social cohesion. As I’ve already mentioned, it establishes an order in which the dominant lords over the submissive. But inside those constraints, there’s always room for mischief and good journalism. I have no inside knowledge of what transpired during Leibovich and Bardella’s grooming sessions, but it appears that the reporter got the best of the source, which is always good news.


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