I hailed the cab outside the offices of The Huffington Post around 10:30 P.M., bone-tired, slumping into my seat. Five seconds later, the call came in from a number I didn't recognize. At that moment, I knew I was screwed.
"This is Jonathan Strong at the Daily Caller," said the voice on the other line. "I wanted to ask you about some e-mails you wrote."
Sure enough: screwed. Hours earlier, someone had sent a reporter three e-mails I'd written to JournoList, a private e-mail group created by blogger phenom Ezra Klein. The list included journalists, think-tankers, and academics. I had a bad habit of using it as an idea latrine, talking trash about conservatives and liberals. I had already apologized for these three e-mails, but I knew that whoever sent them to the reporter — whoever had it out for me — possessed an archive of hundreds of similar missives to use against me.
My job, at the time, was covering the conservative movement for The Washington Post. And suddenly the things I said about conservatives were getting flung back at me. The Daily Caller's Strong described what he had found in my e-mails: smack talk about Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh with Friars Club language all over the place. (If someone had passed me a cache of damaging e-mails or voicemails from a media figure or a congressman or a Kardashian — a cache of e-mails or voicemails that would make them look terrible — I'd call them for comment and then hit "print." Of course I would. But I wasn't in that position. I was a Kardashian.)
"I'm trying to understand this," Strong said. "I mean, do you hate conservatives?"
This question had a physical impact; it was like jumping out of water too quickly. I instantly realized that I was no longer a reporter — temporarily, but I didn't know that at the time — and had become an Embattled Reporter: a Controversial Figure at the Center of a Media Firestorm.
I asked Strong if he was taping the call. He was. That was good to know, because it suppressed the instinct I'd seen from other Controversial Figures at the Center of a Media Firestorm: the instinct to wriggle out of the story. If I stammered, I'd be quoted stammering. If I bargained to kill the story, the bargaining would be the story. I quickly decided not to bargain. Strong got everything he wanted from me: confirmation of the quotes and a personal defense mixed with an apology. After the call I contacted the Post, explained what would be published about me the next morning, and offered to resign. Soon after Strong's story went up early on June 25, the resignation was accepted.
That fish-out-of-water feeling was back.
I had ceased to be a head-down reporter, I readied for my new life as a political football. This was Stage Two of a Media Firestorm. And I understood it all too well: I had often called people, or their paid flacks, when they were in one stage or another of self-immolation: I needed a comment from the congressman who did an on-camera interview about abstinence with the employee he banged; I needed to know whether a think tank thinker — who just wasn't conservative enough — was fired or whether he actually left to spend more time with his family. I used to make fun of these people (and roll my eyes with Linda Blair velocity) when they tried to explain their downfall, or when they tried to express contrition. And suddenly I was one of them.
The Drudge Report ran the story. Millions of people knew I was a mean, snarky, stab-your-back punk behind the scenes. (Preceding the incident I actually was changing the way I talked and wrote, cutting back hard on the vitriol, but who would believe this?) I felt terrible, but at some level I knew I could handle it. I prepared for the deluge of calls and e-mails asking me to comment.
The surprise: I didn't get many calls. Some people asked for interviews: the Post's ombudsman Andy Alexander, media critic Howard Kurtz, blogger Greg Sargent, Michael Calderone of Yahoo! News, and Keach Hagey of Politico. Later, Daniel Foster of National Review, David Carr of the New York Times, John Aaron of Maryland's WTOP, Mitch Berg of Minnesota's AM1280, and a producer for Good Morning America. (I politely no-commented — something I hated when it was done to me — until I apologized for the e-mails on BigJournalism.com.) As far as attempts to get comments went, that was it. If it sounds like a lot, try a Google News search for my name; you'll find more than five hundred articles about what happened. Approximately 1 percent reflect any attempt to contact me.
Some of this I understand. A discussion of whether medical doctors should worry about having private online discussions leaked maliciously would not benefit from my contribution. (A free tip: Don't write about possible medical advice for Matt Drudge.) And I understand why someone would write about all of this without lifting a phone or opening an e-mail; contacting the Controversial Figure means getting spun. But all those thumb-suckers on what my case Meant for Journalism, or what the Overlooked Story of the thing was, or whether I was lying when I said that I'd sent most of the e-mails before joining the Post — those couldn't have been hurt by quick e-mails to the Controversial Figure himself, right?
Over the first churning forty-eight hours of this whole mess, I resisted — and then accepted — a new sympathy for a politician I'd never pretended to admire much: Sarah Palin. A political celebrity who raises money and appears on TV needs the media in a way that a reporter doesn't. But damn if I didn't feel sorry for the way every utterance Palin ever makes is taffy-pulled and inspected for lies. During the trial of a boy who hacked into Palin's private e-mail account, I debunked a rumor while appearing on MSNBC — where I am now a contributor — that she had "perjured" herself on the stand. She hadn't. She'd spoken correctly, if clumsily, about some of her old e-mails. Like I said: screwed, and then a new sympathy. (Of course, journalists would have had an easier time reaching me than Palin, who is notoriously difficult to get a comment from unless you happen to be a Fox News host.)
This is, obviously, a weird place to be. Lucky for me, it's not a place that will prevent me from working again; it is not a place isolated from journalism. At one level it enhances the way I think about what I cover — I can't imagine ever again writing about someone without manning up to get him or her to comment, or provide more context. (Or explain why the hell he wanted Matt Drudge to set himself on fire.)
But it's not a place I want anyone else to visit. When I finished up the phone call with Strong, brutally aware that I was about to spend weeks or months carrying this burden, I realized that no one could take the same scrutiny and walk away looking saintly.
"I just hope," I said, "that no one ever does this to you."
I followed this scandal while it happened (and got in a three-hour debate with this obsessed Media Research Center tool about it), it's really dumb that you can call a Supreme Court justice a child molester (Erick Erickson) or say that Hitler was misunderstood (Pat Buchanan) and keep your job, but make a mean joke about Matt Drudge and you have to quit.