Jacob Heilbrunn

Darrell Issa and A Press Scandal

Darrell Issa, the head of the Government Reform committee, has run into his own mini-scandal. He's fired his spokesman, Kurt Bardella, who was apparently feeding New York Times journalist Mark Leibovich e-mails from Politico journalists. Leibovich is writing a book about Washington's culture. Now, as Dana Milbank observes, Leibovich himself is 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."

Politico editor John Harris is incensed, or pretending to be incensed, by the sharing of e-mails. But since when have e-mails ever really been private? It's not clear what's in the e-mails. But they could show that Politico journalists were trying to cozy up to Issa. Of course, this is what journalists do. Part of the fuss has to do with the mistaken idea of objectivity and neutrality--American newspapers remain afraid to admit that they have a partisan bias. Only Fox News comes closest to telling the truth about its approach to the news.

But the coziness does present a problem. It's what allowed the Bush administration to pull the collective wool over the eyes of the press during the runup to the Iraq War. The press corps essentially disabled its alarm detectors. The New York Times became a prominent purveyor of bogus information about Saddam Hussein, thanks to the credulous reporting, if that's the right term, of Judith Miller, who recycled Bush propaganda as fact, particularly when it came to weapons of mass destruction.

The press corps ended up destroying a good chunk of its own credibility. Next the media basically rolled over for Barack Obama during his presidential run (and, by and large, failed to hunt down the John Edwards/Rielle Hunter saga). If the press wanted to reexamine its role, it might look back to a pioneering study by Walter Lippmann called Liberty and the News, which studied the propensity of the media to purvey fiction as fact. Today Milbank is right to suggest that a "sense of detachment" is needed between those who are covering the newsmakers and the newsmakers themselves.