A spat like the one between New York Times investigative reporter Eric Lichtblau and California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa doesn’t materialize over just a few weeks. Something that nasty needs a history. It needs a grudge, preferably one hardened over the course of many years.
Hostilities of such depth came to the fore after the Times published Lichtblau’s Aug. 14 front-page piece about Issa’s political and business dealings. The story described how the politico/entrepreneur mixed those two worlds to the benefit of his bottom line:
“As his private wealth and public power have grown, so too has the overlap between his private and business lives, with at least some of the congressman’s government actions helping to make a rich man even richer and raising the potential for conflicts.”
(See my previous post for a timeline of events.)
Issa disagreed with the thrust and the grain of the story, in public fashion. He issued a statement citing 13 problems with the piece and demanded a retraction. Allegations and counter-allegations traveled between the two parties, animating Congress’ recess. The New York Times ended up issuing three corrections to the original story, two of which blame faulty information from official sources.
The congressman wants more -- at least two more corrections plus a retraction, to judge from an Aug. 26 release on the dispute. “That’s not going to happen,” says Lichtblau.
Says Issa spokesman Frederick Hill: “These are such serious mistakes. . . it’s certainly cause for great concern.”
Cause for greater concern: Both parties in this dispute have managed to sully themselves, though by no means in equal measure.
Undergirding this back and forth is a nastiness that traces back over a decade, to an allegation of a gun in a box. In 1998, Issa was seeking the Republican nomination to challenge incumbent California Sen. Barbara Boxer (D). Engaged in a tough race that included the California state treasurer, he found a PR problem on the front page of the Los Angeles Times just days before the primary.
It was Lichtblau. Then a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, Lichtblau used 2,757 words to describe some “ugly chapters” in Issa’s “rags to riches” rise as an auto-accessories industrialist.
Some key story points:
* Issa’s 1972 arrest for stealing a red Maserati from a Cleveland dealership; the case was dismissed;
*Allegations that Issa had used less-than-ethical tactics to take over the car-alarm firm that would later pad his wealth;
*The gun-in-box anecdote. After Issa took over the car-alarm company then-named A.C. Custom, he did something odd, according to Lichtblau’s Los Angeles Times account:
“One of Issa’s first tasks as the new boss was to remove an executive named Jack Frantz.
According to Frantz, Issa came into his office, placed a small box on the desk and opened it. Inside, he said, was a gun.
“He just showed it to me and said ‘You know what this is?’ ” Frantz said.
Issa invited Frantz to hold the gun at one point and told him he had learned about guns and explosives during his military days, Frantz said. Because he was about to be fired, Frantz said he saw it as ‘pure intimidation.’”
To sew up the gun story, Lichtblau received on-the-record confirmation from a company bookkeeper. “It was pretty terrifying,” the woman told Lichtblau. Issa said he didn’t “recall having a gun.”
The image of a corporate thug couldn’t have helped Issa at the polls, where he ended up losing the senatorial primary by a narrow margin. His spokesman says of the 1998 Los Angeles Times story: “Lichtblau selectively reported information and mischaracterized the explanations Mr. Issa offered for incidents. That story painted a picture of Rep. Issa that is 180 degrees from reality.”
In keeping with his resilient nature, the Vista, Calif., resident won a House seat in 2000, arriving in Washington with a long media memory. As Issa worked the capital with his California conservatism, Lichtblau, who moved to the New York Times in 2002, investigated the Bush administration’s response to the events of Sept. 11. Lichtblau and James Risen in late 2005 broke news about the administration’s domestic eavesdropping program -- an investigation that won them the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2006.
At a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee in July 2008, Issa laid bare his level of reverence for Lichtblau’s national security reporting. Before him was then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey. Issa opened his questioning by inviting the country’s top law-enforcement official to give his “opinion both before and after you were the AG what the effects of organizations like the New York Times, and so on, leaking the most sensitive information have been as to the ability of us to conduct the war on terror and as to potential prosecutions.”