Darrell Issa e-mail leaks: Why John F. Harris is massively overreacting.

Media criticism.
March 1 2011 12:32 PM

Politico's Editor Overreacts

John F. Harris, go soak your head.

John Harris. Click image to expand.
John F. Harris

I coughed up a lung laughing today as I read the Washington Post story about Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who is investigating his press spokesman for allegedly leaking hundreds of e-mails from dozens of reporters to New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich. (Leibovich is writing a book about Washington's political culture.)

[Update, 5:46 p.m., March 1: Issa has fired his press spokesman, Kurt Bardella.]

The organ expulsion came as I read the protestations of Politico Editor-in-Chief, John F. Harris, about the alleged leaks, which the Post quoted from a Politico story. Harris wrote:

The practice of sharing reporter e-mails with another journalist on a clandestine basis would be egregiously unprofessional under any circumstances. … As the editor-in-chief of Politico, my concern is heightened by information suggesting that Politico journalists may have had their reporting compromised by this activity.

In his interview with the Post, Harris expanded on this theme.

It's just intolerable if [information about] our reporting was shared with other journalists from other news organizations. … Our reporting is proprietary and our stories are competitive. Journalists have an expectation that their communication [with sources] is confidential.

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Although I would be first to offer condolences to any reporter whose e-mails or inquiries to a press officer had been blithely shared with another reporter, I wouldn't spend more than five seconds on cheering him up. A certain variety of Washington reporter lives and dies by leaks from government officials, so I don't see why a government official leaking to a reporter about  a national security matter is kosher, but a government official leaking about what reporters are asking him about is "egregiously unprofessional," "compromising," or "intolerable," as Harris puts it.

As for Harris' expectation that communications from reporters will be "held confidential," well, I feel another lung coming up. Although I hope flacks will keep confidential my inquiries to them and their bosses, never in my journalistic career have I believed that a flack would keep his mouth zipped. Flacks and reporters are in the business of distributing information, not sequestering it. They move information like currency traders! They're blabbermouths! This is one reason why reporting on the press is so easy, why the freshest journalistic recruit can start reporting on the press with almost no experience: Reporters love to give up their secrets and the secrets of others. Why?  Because that's what they're trained to do! Flacks are almost as loose-mouthed.

Anybody composing e-mails these days should proceed on the assumption that what they write will be posted on the Web milliseconds after they send it. E-mail is not a secure form of communication. You might as well skywrite your questions to a press spokesman as put them in an e-mail. If Harris is so upset about his reporters' e-mails getting leaked to Leibovich, he should have them use the phone. It's not a leak-proof device, but it's harder to forward a phone conversation unless you're running a tape recorder.

Of course it is wrong for somebody to share correspondence without asking for permission first, but if that ethical constraint were universally observed, there would be no journalism. We'd all be rewriting GAO reports for a living.

Has Harris ever asked a press spokesman or other official source if another reporter was nosing around the story he was working on? Of course he has! Knowing what your competition is up to so that you can beat them into print is a big part of a reporter's job. Harris knows full well that many press spokesmen routinely conduct their business in an "unprofessional" manner by sharing information with favored reporters about what less-favored reporters are working on.

Yes, such conduct is wrong. But so is a spokesman leaking "confidential" government business—and I'm sure that Harris doesn't object to that. The very foundation of reporting the news is encouraging unprofessional, compromising, and intolerable behaviors from sources to get their hands on "proprietary" information. It's what Politico does—quite well, I should add—every day.

***

FYI: Mark Leibovich is a friend of mine. I didn't talk to him for this piece. Send me e-mail about what you're working on: I promise to share it with Mark: slate.pressbox@gmail.com. If your e-mail is interesting, I'll tweet about it, too. (Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.) Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Issa in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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