The Politico- N.Y. Times food fight
Dana Milbank has a good summary of the pseudo-scandal involving Politico reporters' e-mails. It started with a Capitol Hill aide the public has never heard of -- Kurt Bardella, spokesman for Rep. Darrel Issa (R-Calif.) -- passing e-mails of reporters (including a couple from Politico) the public has never heard of to a reporter/author the public has never heard of. And this is a top story of the day for Politico and the New York Times. Such is the state of journalism.
As Dana aptly put it, "The episode makes everybody look bad." But the reasons everyone looks bad are not the obvious ones most are obsessing over. Oh my, staffers don't keep journalists' e-mails in confidence. Shocking. Oh mercy, reporters suck up to staffers and make deals to get information. Stunning. The mock horror is a bit too much to bear.
There are, however, at least a few less-remarked-upon portions of this tale that are worth discussing. First, we are told the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza first stumbled upon the story while doing a piece on Issa. But he kept it to himself. Huh?! Dana tells us that the pattern of e-mail indiscretion "wasn't his focus, but word spread via journalistic pillow-talk after Lizza mentioned it in conversations." So it was hot gossip but not good enough for the piece? And to make it even weirder, Lizza now tells Politico it really IS a big story. Then why didn't he break it?
Then there is the fit being thrown by Politico's editors. Granted it's not nice to forward other people's mail, but explosive reaction and the outrage seem a bit much, no? Politico itself reported on a letter John Harris sent to Issa:
"The practice of sharing reporter e-mails with another journalist on a clandestine basis would be egregiously unprofessional under any circumstances," Harris wrote. "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.
Harris also asked Issa whether the contents of e-mails or phone calls involving POLITICO or other journalists were shared with journalists from other organizations.
Well, now we see. The red light is flashing: "Damage control!" How bad do those e-mails make Politico's reporters look? If the reaction is any gauge, pretty bad.
So the story is framed in just such a way -- an astounding breach of ethics -- by the outlet that at bottom is concerned about its own self-image. Quite a house of mirrors. And by the way, why doesn't Politico have an ombudsman to at least attempt to police itself?
Then the next chapter becomes the New York Times, which has had an ongoing rivalry with Politico in the way San Francisco and Los Angeles have a rivalry. (New York Times/San Francisco looks down on Los Angeles/Politico with a surplus of disdain, yet obsesses over its every utterance. Los Angeles/Politico sees San Francisco/New York Times as a quaint relic of a bygone era.) So the New York Times piles on with much finger-wagging. And we are off to another round of who's-the-coolest-political-reporters-inside-the-Beltway.(Hint: neither, especially if they keep this up.)
Self-absorption to the point of parody? Check. Thinly-disguised "news" stories that serve journalists' own personal or business interests? Check. Evidence that "journalistic ethics" is taking on the status of an oxymoron? Check. In the world of celebrity journalists, it's perhaps to be expected that some news reporters and editors have come to regard themselves as the story, or, at the very least, to become convinced that their concerns and woes as the most fascinating part of the story. (Hence, hours of Anderson Cooper's knock on the head in Cairo.) For people in the business of providing "context" and "perspective" that's a pretty big character flaw.
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