If you want to cover up wrongdoing, don’t talk. Lies can be uncovered, and truths could help reporters find you out, even if you’re trying to throw them off your trail. Your best bet is to stay completely out of the situation until the story comes out. Then fire back with some information only you could be privy to, and make the reporter look incompetent. Even if you can’t shoot down all the accusations, you dominate a quick news cycle by calling the reporting shoddy, and that story sticks.
Darrell Issa pulled it off beautifully. Issa stayed away from a high-profile New York Times story about using his office to enrich himself, and then he stood at a distance and attacked it once it came out.
Eric Lichtblau used IRS filings to determine the purchase and sale prices of Issa’s properties, finding that public works projects Issa created benefited him financially. Lichtblau sent these details to Issa’s office for comment and received no response. Only once the story was out did Issa’s office declare the prices were way off, that Issa didn’t gain anything from the transaction.
Lichtblau could see Issa’s office building from a golf course and included the detail in his story that the offices “overlooked” the golf course. This provoked indignation from Issa’s camp, appalled that a reporter could just make something up like that. Obviously Issa wasn’t going to let Lichtblau check his offices out while reporting the story. But reporters covering the scandal of the story have been granted access to the office to confirm that, no, you cannot see the golf course from its windows.
These and other purported inaccuracies led to Issa’s call for the New York Times to issue a front-page retraction of the story.
It springs from a disdain for the role of the media in policing politicians and refusal to acknowledge the concern that drove the article, namely that a conflict of interest could arise from operating as an active businessperson in a district and nation that you govern.
It’s tempting to approach this with the idea that if Issa has nothing to hide, he should admit to investigation. But even people with nothing to hide don’t like being investigated. The fact that he was able to refuse participation in the investigation without consequence is the issue. We have to require that our politicians allow themselves to be investigated and participate in investigations when we’re looking into matters as serious as whether they’re governing with our interest or theirs in mind.
If the threat of the New York Times running a story saying Issa refused to cooperate with a story investigating his possible corruption isn’t enough to get him giving up the damning information and trying to spin it positively, then we haven’t done our job. A politician should be embarrassed out of office if he won’t work with the organizations whose job it is to find the truth and give it to the public. Not if we see a picture of his penis. An elected representative of the people being openly evasive from the people’s gaze is incompatible with democracy.
But it worked out great for him, and that’s why he did it. Lichtblau’s story remained potent after Issa’s rebuttal, and a follow-up story in the Times added more evidence that Issa’s work in Congress was enriching him. But with the story tainted by some bad facts, it was over. Nobody would run with it, it wouldn’t get any traction. And if a reporter is completely denied access to any facts on a large business empire, there are bound to be some mistakes, and some are bound to involve different figures and look, really, pretty bad.