The very silly story of Darrell Issa's spokesman scandal

Rep. investigates own office for former flack's e-mail leaking; Beltway self-absorption reaches new low

By Alex Pareene
Published March 3, 2011 1:30PM (EST)
Darrell Issa
Darrell Issa

The self-obsessed, navel-gazing Washington press corps is in a tizzy over the dismissal of a congressman's communications director (the guy whose job it was to befriend and spin and leak to members of the Washington press corps), who was fired for the crime of sharing journalists' e-mails with another journalist who is working on a book about the self-obsessed, navel-gazing Washington press corps.

The congressman is Darrell Issa. The former spokesman is Kurt Bardella. The story, and the arguments on both sides of the story, are ably summarized by Jason Linkins here. Basically, Bardella was BCC'ing Mark Leibovich of the New York Times on a lot of his correspondence with Beltway reporters and TV bookers and so forth, for use in Leibovich's forthcoming book about how those Washington relationships work. Which is mildly unethical and certainly impolite, but as Jack Shafer pointed out, so is journalism in general.

It is really one of the silliest political/media scandals to bubble up from Capitol Hill in years, so inconsequential that it's difficult even to drum up schadenfreude for lazy Beltway hacks getting their comeuppance or anticipate the eventual embarrassing headlines for a zealous Republican lawmaker. I was barely even outraged by the shamelessness of Politico calling out anyone, anywhere, for excessive self-promotion. (But there is a lot of self-obsession without self-awareness in this entire scandal, and in that entire city.)

Yesterday, Politico reported on reporting that originally appeared in the New Yorker responding to Politico's reporting on the story that its reporters might eventually be embarrassed by a book written by the New York Times reporter. Politico left out the part about how its reporters might be embarrassed, though it reported that Issa may be embarrassed by opening an investigation into a thing that everyone in his office knew about.

Dana Milbank -- Dana Milbank!!! -- wrote a story bemoaning how "incestuous" and "deformed" the entire Washington culture is, and then Mike Allen made fun of him. Marc Ambinder said that it's stupid for reporters to think their e-mails won't be forwarded around by sources. (He was more polite about it than that.) Jack Shafer popped back in to explain that obsequiousness is how the D.C. source-reporter relationship works, and that we should judge a reporter by the story that gets written after the sucking up. (By that measure, most reporters who write about Issa aren't very good.)

Only Lizza seems to have grasped the one, single part of this entire ridiculous meta-story that has relevance beyond Cafe Milano: Not that reporters are desperate sycophants (we know!), but that they apparently asked Issa to use his subpoena power to hand them sexy Obama scandal stories.

We can only hope Issa's new spokesperson leaks the results of Issa's investigation into what Issa knew about the rude-but-legal actions of his former spokesperson to whichever Politico reporter will be the most humiliated by the contents of his e-mails to the unethical former spokesperson before the investigation officially concludes that no one did anything wrong besides the guy who was already fired.

[Full disclosure: Bardella e-mailed me once, and I responded with something polite and insulting to Howard Kurtz, and I bet Leibovich was totally uninterested in being BCC'd on that particular exchange.]

Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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