Leibovich, Lizza, Sullivan on the E-Mail Debate

By Jeffrey Goldberg

Okay, this is inside baseball, so all normal people can skip to the next post, assuming there's a next post. (One never knows, do one?) The New York Times's Mark Leibovich (full disclosure: He's a friend-of-Goldblog) apparently received e-mails other reporters wrote to Darrell Issa's now-fired flack. (Dana Milbank has the best write-up of this -- including a very funny lede -- in the Post, in which he suggests that Politico reporters, in particular, might not look so wonderful if these e-mails come out). Leibovich is writing a book about how Washington is full of assholes, which I'm looking forward to reading, because I didn't know this before, and these e-mails are presumably part of his research. Jack Shafer (also a friend-of-Goldblog, except when he's yelling at me for something) has written in defense of Leibovich. Ryan Lizza (Goldblog's replacement at The New Yorker, and also a friend -- yes, it amazes me too, that I have friends, though mainly I have shifting alliances) -- explicates the weirdness in a post on the New Yorker website. Andrew Sullivan (a friend of Goldblog's,  from Zionist summer camp) thinks the pro-all-e-mails-are-fair-game-for-exposure camp is full of shit, and takes after Ryan, although in closely reading Ryan's blog post, I don't think he's actually defending or criticizing the practice, just reporting on it. (An earlier iteration of this post accepted Andrew's contention that Ryan was defending Leibovich and the practice of leaking journalists' e-mails, but I should have stared at Ryan's post more carefully before accepting that conclusion).

The dirty secret driving this conversation is the near-universal recognition among reporters that, in trying to nab access and interviews, we sometimes tend to paint a rather benign portrait of our intentions in the pitch e-mails we write. (To wit, my e-mail last week to Muammar Qaddafi: "Dear Mo, it's been long time -- too long, in fact! How are you? I would love to come to see you, and no, I don't want to talk about Benghazi, and these al-Qaeda putzes trying to overthrow your glorious and democratically-chosen governnment! Mainly what I want to talk to you about is flowers. All facets of horticulture, actually. And, by the way, I'm on your side! I just read the Green Book again, and man, it is just brilliant! You're like James Madison in a dress! Which would make you Dolley Madison, I guess, but whatever. XXOO, Jeff.")

By the time you've spent a dozen years or more in journalism (like Leibovich, Lizza, me, etc.) you pretty much learn the downsides, ethical and practical, of lily-gilding, and I err on the side of morose foreboding when I ask for interviews. But the exposure of these sorts of e-mails -- and of a much worse sub-species, the e-mails that simultaneously promise the source the sun, the moon and the stars while trashing the competition -- is what is at stake here. People around Washington are very nervous about Leibovich's book, which is good for Leibovich.

I've created a short-cut for myself, by cc'ing Leibovich on every e-mail I write, and also by giving him access to my bank account.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/03/leibovich-lizza-sullivan-on-the-e-mail-debate/71943/