Erik Wemple
Opinion Blogger

New York Times and Rep. Issa: A spat to remember

A spat like the one between New York Times investigative reporter Eric Lichtblau and California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa doesn’t materialize over just a few weeks. Something that nasty needs a history. It needs a grudge, preferably one hardened over the course of many years.

Hostilities of such depth came to the fore after the Times published Lichtblau’s Aug. 14 front-page piece about Issa’s political and business dealings. The story described how the politico/entrepreneur mixed those two worlds to the benefit of his bottom line:

Erik Wemple

Erik Wemple writes a reported opinion blog on the media. He has been doing journalism for and about Washington for more than two decades, including eight years as editor of the Washington City Paper and another year as editor of TBD.com.

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“As his private wealth and public power have grown, so too has the overlap between his private and business lives, with at least some of the congressman’s government actions helping to make a rich man even richer and raising the potential for conflicts.”

(See my previous post for a timeline of events.)

Issa disagreed with the thrust and the grain of the story, in public fashion. He issued a statement citing 13 problems with the piece and demanded a retraction. Allegations and counter-allegations traveled between the two parties, animating Congress’ recess. The New York Times ended up issuing three corrections to the original story, two of which blame faulty information from official sources.

The congressman wants more -- at least two more corrections plus a retraction, to judge from an Aug. 26 release on the dispute. “That’s not going to happen,” says Lichtblau.

Says Issa spokesman Frederick Hill: “These are such serious mistakes. . . it’s certainly cause for great concern.”

Cause for greater concern: Both parties in this dispute have managed to sully themselves, though by no means in equal measure.

Undergirding this back and forth is a nastiness that traces back over a decade, to an allegation of a gun in a box. In 1998, Issa was seeking the Republican nomination to challenge incumbent California Sen. Barbara Boxer (D). Engaged in a tough race that included the California state treasurer, he found a PR problem on the front page of the Los Angeles Times just days before the primary.

It was Lichtblau. Then a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, Lichtblau used 2,757 words to describe some “ugly chapters” in Issa’s “rags to riches” rise as an auto-accessories industrialist.

Some key story points:

* Issa’s 1972 arrest for stealing a red Maserati from a Cleveland dealership; the case was dismissed;

*Allegations that Issa had used less-than-ethical tactics to take over the car-alarm firm that would later pad his wealth;

*The gun-in-box anecdote. After Issa took over the car-alarm company then-named A.C. Custom, he did something odd, according to Lichtblau’s Los Angeles Times account:

“One of Issa’s first tasks as the new boss was to remove an executive named Jack Frantz.

According to Frantz, Issa came into his office, placed a small box on the desk and opened it. Inside, he said, was a gun.

“He just showed it to me and said ‘You know what this is?’ ” Frantz said.

Issa invited Frantz to hold the gun at one point and told him he had learned about guns and explosives during his military days, Frantz said. Because he was about to be fired, Frantz said he saw it as ‘pure intimidation.’”

To sew up the gun story, Lichtblau received on-the-record confirmation from a company bookkeeper. “It was pretty terrifying,” the woman told Lichtblau. Issa said he didn’t “recall having a gun.”

The image of a corporate thug couldn’t have helped Issa at the polls, where he ended up losing the senatorial primary by a narrow margin. His spokesman says of the 1998 Los Angeles Times story: “Lichtblau selectively reported information and mischaracterized the explanations Mr. Issa offered for incidents. That story painted a picture of Rep. Issa that is 180 degrees from reality.”

In keeping with his resilient nature, the Vista, Calif., resident won a House seat in 2000, arriving in Washington with a long media memory. As Issa worked the capital with his California conservatism, Lichtblau, who moved to the New York Times in 2002, investigated the Bush administration’s response to the events of Sept. 11. Lichtblau and James Risen in late 2005 broke news about the administration’s domestic eavesdropping program -- an investigation that won them the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2006.

At a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee in July 2008, Issa laid bare his level of reverence for Lichtblau’s national security reporting. Before him was then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey. Issa opened his questioning by inviting the country’s top law-enforcement official to give his “opinion both before and after you were the AG what the effects of organizations like the New York Times, and so on, leaking the most sensitive information have been as to the ability of us to conduct the war on terror and as to potential prosecutions.”

Mukasey voiced a reluctance to “criticize individual newspapers,” at which point Issa interrupted: “I am not restrained from saying Eric Lichtblau and the other people who leak national secrets, but I understand that you wouldn’t.” Lichtblau was sitting in the hearing room at the time.

Late last year, Issa was elected chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform -- the news peg for an exhaustive profile by the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza. A proper account of Issa’s rise, Lizza decided, entailed rummaging through the congressman’s past. Just as Lichtblau had done years earlier, Lizza looked up Issa’s brother, Bill. Using a public-records database, Lizza got Bill Issa’s phone number and chatted him up.

Then came an Issa-Lichtblau moment. “After I talked to [Bill Issa], [Darrell] Issa called me and accused me of collaborating with Eric,” recalls Lizza. “He suggested that I must have gotten the phone number from Eric.” Lizza interpreted the turn of events as evidence of a “slightly conspiratorial mind.”

From one of Lizza’s interviews with Issa comes the following exchange about the congressman’s favorite reporter:

“Lizza: Is that story [about the gun] true?”

“Issa: No! That was the amazing thing, Eric Lichtblau who is a notorious hatchet man--”

“Lizza: Now at the New York Times.”

“Issa: Right, he was at the LA Times, New York Times. Now he’s doing mostly sorta WikiLeaks for the New York Times, a lot of the CIA leaks and so on. We repeatedly said, in the one -- he came down, ‘We’re gonna straighten this out,’ he came down with all these accusations to meet LA Times’ test of ‘theoretically we talked to the source’ -- ‘Was it your gun?’ ‘No.’ ‘Did you ever wave a gun?’ ‘No.’ Period, period, period. So finally, he said -- I said, ‘Why is it he’s saying that? There was no police report, there was no accusation at the time, clearly no shots were fired. Why are you accepting somebody’s unsupported statement decades later?’ So what does he print? ‘No shots were fired.’ ”

As they wound up their discussion, Lizza mentioned that he’d also talk to Lichtblau to get his side of the story. Issa responded: “His side is he was paid to hammer me eight days before the election, and he did.”

Asked about the congressman’s take on Lichtblau, spokesman Hill denied any obsession or fixation. “I would say that Rep. Issa has not wanted to have anything to do with Mr. Lichtblau since his 1998 story,” replied Hill.

Lichtblau’s take: “It is true that that story has stuck with him for a long time. For years he has blamed me personally for costing him the Senate seat.”

So when Lichtblau requested Issa’s cooperation for the Aug. 14 story on the lawmaker’s business and political worlds, he got nowhere. The problem, suggests the Issa camp, wasn’t the questions; it was the guy asking them. “Had The New York Times assigned a different reporter,” said one of Issa’s post-publication press releases, “our response would have almost certainly been different.”

Different from ferocious and cutthroat, that is. The demand for retraction that Issa released following the story’s publication -- the one alleging 13 erroneous statements--- creates a new standard for aggressive pushback. Highlights:

*Multi-billion: Issa, according to the story, had “split a holding company into separate multibillion-dollar businesses.” The congressman responded that he did “not own a single multi-billion business.”

*Investment Windfall: From the story: “In one 2008 sale, months before the stock market crashed, his family foundation earned $357,000 on an initial investment of less than $19,000 -- a return of nearly 1,900 percent in just seven months, the foundation reported to the Internal Revenue Service.” That characterization, said Issa’s salvo, was “based on an incorrect document. The actual purchase price was not $19,000, but $500,000 and resulted in a $125,000 loss.”

*Real Estate Windfall: According to the story, a medical complex owned by Issa skyrocketed in value -- and the location stands to benefit from a road-widening project with funds earmarked by Issa. That narrative, said Issa, was based on a bogus purchase price.

*Golf course: The story’s lede states that Issa’s offices are lodged “on the third floor of a gleaming office building overlooking a golf course in the rugged foothills north of San Diego.” Issa argued that the building has no overlooking relationship with any golf course.

The Times dispensed with the easy stuff first, issuing an immediate correction changing “multibillion” to “multimillion.” In a letter to Issa, a Times editor attributed the big-money gaffe to a “typo” -- an explanation that couldn’t possibly have impressed the standards editor.

White-collar combat raged over the other items. Following nearly two weeks of tension, the Times published corrections on the financials of the medical complex and the 1,900 percent windfall -- yet it didn’t own up to either of them. Both of the errors, contended the Times, stemmed from the errors of others: For the 1,900 percent investment return, Lichtblau had relied on mistaken figures in IRS documents filed by Issa’s family foundation; and for the appreciating medical complex, he said he’d gotten bad information from the county assessor’s office -- a contention that didn’t sit well with the county assessor’s office.

All the fighting and document exchanges pushed Lichtblau’s reporting process into the daylight, with unflattering results for Issa & Co. Days before the story hit the streets -- on Aug. 10 -- Lichtblau sent Issa’s people an e-mail outlining the issues he wished to raise with the congressman. One of them was this:

“The foundation’s stock and mutual fund investments, including investments in an AIM small-company mutual fund that produced a rate of return of nearly 1900% on a $375,000 sale in 2008, according the foundation’s 990 filings, and its use of third-party brokers.”

Exploring the full depravity of the situation requires bullet points:

*Assuming that Issa’s people read the e-mail, they knew that false information was about to be published; yet:

*They did nothing to warn Lichtblau, even though:

*The Isaa people were at fault for the false information; and:

*After the story came out, Issa hammered the paper for the error.

Not so simple, counters the Issa camp. According to Hill, the mutual fund windfall amount was “something Lichtblau either did or should have known was wrong.” Hill said he figured that the Lichtblau e-mail with all the mutual fund numbers was essentially a ploy, a “disingenuous game... to get us to engage in an on-the-record dialogue for him to use/distort in his story.” All of which Licthtblau calls “ludicrous.”

The New York Times loses a little moral high ground on the question of landscape. The notion that the building that houses Issa’s offices overlooks a golf course is dubious based on video and Google Earth. It more precisely overlooks a highway.

Stretching the southern California landscape to associate Issa with the luxury of a golf course comes off as a tendentious elbow to the ribs -- and, indeed, Issa responded like someone who’s been bruised, campaigning intensely against the Times on the “overlooking” question.

The Times stands by its description, though it cites a source in a profession famous for topographical fibbing: “The realty agency,” wrote outgoing Times Washington Bureau Chief Dean Baquet in a letter to Issa, “has advertised the ‘direct views to golf driving range.’”

In pursuing the story, Lichtblau says he spent two days in San Diego surveying Issa’s holdings; he relied on congressional and business documents; he interviewed Issa constituents and experts; and he made repeated attempts to get the congressman’s side of the story. All that work should have inoculated Lichtblau from being associated with the most infamous journalist of the past decade. But it didn’t. On Aug. 23, Issa issued a “memo” communicating this very libel -- a document so heinous that it will get no link or detailed abridgment here.

Issa should be careful about whose career he trashes. In June 2010, Lichtblau published a scoop detailing how White House officials were meeting with lobbyists at a nearby Caribou Coffee and using non-official e-mail accounts to communicate with them.

Issa never took issue with the story’s contention that the Caribou outlet was “across from” the White House. No, this was one Lichtblau piece that the congressman apparently adored: Just days after the story hit, Issa, then the oversight committee’s ranking member, wrote a letter requesting a committee investigation into whether the e-mailing violated the Presidential Records Act. The letter footnoted Lichtblau’s work three times. Over the ensuing year, Issa would write at least three more letters relying on Lichtblau’s reportorial bona fides.

When asked why Issa would rely so heavily on someone he’s slandered so thoroughly, spokesman Hill replies, “Those letters were sent before other media organizations raised such pointed questions about Eric Lichtblau’s credibility.”

The Caribou saga is so pivotal because of what it says about Issa: He knows, or should know, that Lichtblau is a fine reporter with a record of getting things right, yet he attempted to assassinate his character anyhow. And even though the coffeehouse scoop took direct aim at a Democratic administration, Issa called the New York Times part of a “left-wing smear machine” following the Aug. 14 piece.

The congressman’s initial refusal to deal with Lichtblau, too, speaks ill of anyone holding a public office. The reporter’s Los Angeles Times story is 13 years old. It was carefully reported and narrated -- and fully corroborated by Lizza’s more recent expose. Issa’s objections to it form a bowl of baseless rancor.

If only the Times’s conduct pointed 180 degrees in the opposite direction. It doesn’t. The mixups involving “multibillion” and the golf course hint at a quest to paint Issa as a higher roller than he actually is.

And for an outlet that insists on accountability from public officials, the Times doesn’t come off as willing to reciprocate. In his letter to Issa pushing back against the pushback, Baquet wrote: “]O]ur reporting on an issue of clear public importance was made more difficult by your office’s refusal to respond to, or even acknowledge three weeks’ worth of requests for comment.”

We’ll allow an exemption for the IRS filing snafu, but that’s a statement that the Times should never put under its letterhead. In a welcome note this week to staff, freshly installed Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson referenced the words of a reporter from another outlet, who said, “The gap between you and everyone else has never been wider.” If the paper is such a paragon, then it should never shift blame for errors on anyone else.

Speaking of letterhead, Baquet concludes the letter like this:

“Finally, I’d like to say that it is troubling to see your office using the letterhead and imprimatur of a powerful congressional committee to wage personal and meritless attacks on a reporter and a news organization.”

Never whine, New York Times -- you’re a pretty powerful force yourself.

The whole episode looks miserable for the Times. Following a correction to one of its corrections, the total now stands at four. For many stories, such a tally would entail running a retraction, as Issa has urged.

Yet correction tallies don’t govern retractions. Subjective judgments do. The question boils down to whether the factual errors are so significant as to topple the story’s premise.

Not in this piece. The Times states: “In Mr. Issa’s case, it is sometimes difficult to separate the business of Congress from the business of Darrell Issa.” With his reporting on topics as wide-ranging as Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and Toyota, as well as Issa’s family foundation, Lichtblau manages to keep the premise standing, despite the pounding it has taken.

Yet the real redemption for Lichtblau, ironically enough, has come in the weeks after the Aug. 14 piece. In battering the Times, Issa has shunned the usual quiet and reasonable ways in which subjects of investigative journalism negotiate corrections and retractions with news outlets. His actions and words bespeak a bare-knuckled and motivated professional who ramrods his way to the desired end. And that’s pretty much the man Lichtblau has depicted in his stories, both in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.

 
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