Darell Issa, Kurt Bardella, and Me

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First, to get some qualifications out of the way: I am not cooperating with New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich, nor had I been aware of his book project before POLITICO disclosed its existence. Second, like many reporters, I had textual intercourse with Kurt Bardella, the now-former spokesperson for Rep. Darrell Issa.

Our exchanges generally consisted of my attempting to confirm something that someone else reported or Bardella giving me a tip about what his boss was up to the next day. I do not, as a matter of management, share my private e-mails with anyone, but I don't recall sending Bardella anything that would interest Leibovich.

In fact, as a rule, I don't send candid e-mails to people. Well, that's not true. I send those e-mails to people I really trust.


But having long ago been burned by sources, I learned that if I needed to ask a source a sensitive question, or had something to say that might reflect poorly on me if broadcast to a wider audience, I would pick up the telephone and call. I once made the mistake of putting the name of a classified intelligence gathering program in an e-mail, and I nearly got someone fired...someone who had nothing to do with my learning about the program.

Something happened. POLITICO discovered, apparently, that e-mails sent by its chief political correspondent, Mike Allen, and Jake Sherman, who covers Congress, ended up in Leibovich's inbox.

Understandably, POLITICO's editor, John Harris, was outraged at ...well, it's hard to pinpoint this precisely.

His reporters wrote the e-mails. Since there is no professional code of conduct for journalists and sources, there are no rules to violate.

There is a general understanding, a hidden law, a common presupposition, that e-mail isn't intended for forwarding. Reporters and sources have a mutual interest in being honest and upfront with each other, so each assumes that, if they consider the relationship important, they would not violate this implied confidentiality.

This is all an ideal. Unfortunately, a lot of journalists and many sources face extreme pressure to be information dealers, to trade information they get for better information, to "blow up" one source in favor of another. This tension is exacerbated by the competitive landscape for news organizations. Bardella knows that the snowflake scoop, the micro-scoop, the gossamer-thin scoop that leaves no imprint the next day, is the bread and butter of many of a news organization.

There are editors in this town who apply enormous pressure on their reporters to "break" the type of news that's equivalent to a person moving up one more ladder ring. Sources, be they press secretaries or people who aren't supposed to talk to the media, face counterflows: if they work for an ambitious boss, they are likely to adopt the personality of the office. Those of us who worked with Bardella knew what we were dealing with. He was a smart, ambitious, cocky guy who thought journalists were lazy. Privately, a lot of journalists share both this view of their colleagues AND Bardella's basic traits.

When Bardella would send me a tip for my old Night Beat memo, he would word it in a way that reflected most favorably for his boss. It would be up to me to decide how to handle it. Sometimes I left it alone, particularly if it was an announcement of a hearing or a direct quote from Issa. At other times, I wrote about it, using Bardella's information and other information to communicate whatever the heck it was I was trying to say. For those of us who curated memos, Bardella was a good person to throw a claim made by the White House against.

He'd come back with the type of response that Republicans would probably wind up using the next day. This is a mildly useful exercise if used to illuminate the politics inside of an issue.  Often, one side of the argument has better facts than the other, so it would be wrong for a reporter to set up the Issa/Bardella response as equivalent to whatever they were responding to.

Bardella needed to keep the press in check, but he also needed to keep reporters happy. There is a hierarchy among reporters too, and it's not always meritocratic. Keeping this complex contraption running is very tough, which is why being a good (and ethical) press secretary is very difficult.

The easiest way to get scoops like this is to become an information broker.  Suck in data, trade it for more data, and spit something out.

Ethical journalists can compartmentalize information properly, but it's not always easy to keep data point "A" from source "B" if you're trying to get a story that source "B" is more inclined to give you if you give source "B" information.

More frequently than reporters and their sources would like to admit, the lines are blurred. The best we can do is to keep our word to the people we give it to. If we don't, we develop a reputation for being sleazy.

And where trust is violated, a conversation between an editor and a chief of staff can usually solve the problem without ruining the career of someone who fell victim to the competitive pressures created by a system he had no hand in creating. We don't know the extent to which Bardella shared e-mails with Leibovich, so we don't know how egregious his conduct was. But frankly, this sort of thing happens all the time. And as Chuck Todd Tweeted yesterday, "many news orgs regularly have issues with sources; rarely do those issues go so public."  He's right.

 When I interact with a source, I hope the source will be discreet - that he or she won't pre-empt my query by giving a story to someone else, or that he or she won't share my style of journalistic flirtation with others.

But I do not expect discretion. I expect just the opposite: I expect my e-mails to be shared with others. I hope they aren't but I write them with the expectation that they will be. That's not ideal, but that's the way it is.

Drop-down navigation-bar image credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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