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Issa press aide scandal is like bad reality TV

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

If Washington's political culture gets any more incestuous, our children are going to be born with extra fingers.

The latest symptom of our deformed political-journalistic complex presented this week, when news broke that the office of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House committee in charge of probing the Obama administration, had been secretly forwarding private correspondence with journalists to an author writing a book about Washington. This caused a great kerfuffle among reporters and a fear that the release of the e-mails could prove them to be sycophants: flattering Issa and his staff in hopes that favorable coverage would be rewarded with scraps of news.

The episode makes everybody look bad. 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.

This particular episode begins with the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza, another friend of mine (see what I mean by incestuous?) who wrote the definitive profile of Issa in January, describing his history as a car thief, among other things. Lizza also got Bardella to make some some surprisingly candid statements.

"I'm going to make Darrell Issa an actual political figure," Bardella said. "I'm going to focus like a laser beam on the five hundred people here who care about this crap, and that's it . . . so Darrell can expand his sphere of influence here among people who track who's up, who's down, who wins, who loses."

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."

Put on your PJs: It's about to get even cozier. Politico reporters were making inquiries on Friday about their e-mails being forwarded to Leibovich, but on Saturday night they partied with Leibovich at the American Legion Hall on Capitol Hill for the 40th birthday party of Politico's executive editor, Jim VandeHei.

A few hours before the party, Leibovich got a call from Politico's editor-in-chief, John Harris - who, along with VandeHei and reporter Mike Allen, used to work at The Post with Leibovich (and me! So very cozy!). "Couldn't this wait until VandeHei's party?" Leibovich joked to Harris.

The bash itself was a celebration of the politically powerful. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and White House official Austan Goolsbee joined the likes of Bob Woodward and Tom Brokaw in a video tribute to VandeHei. The party received a 600-word write-up, which included Leibovich's attendance, in Allen's Politico Playbook the next day.

Also Sunday, Politico's Harris wrote to Issa calling for an investigation into the "egregiously unprofessional" release of e-mails. On Monday, Politico published a story on the controversy co-written by Marin Cogan, a friend of Lizza's.

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 Allen and 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.

But this isn't real news. The items Bardella fed journalists were "exclusive" previews of announcements designed to make Issa look good. Now that Bardella has been fired, Issa has been embarrassed and a few reporters are set to be humiliated, it might be a good time for those who cover the news to regain a sense of detachment from those who make the news.

E-mail: danamilbank@washpost.com Twitter: @milbank


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