MAKING ISSA (AND THE POLITICAL ESTABLISHMENT) LOOK EVEN WORSE…. When I first heard about the controversy in Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-Calif.) office, I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. One of his top aides passed along some materials to the New York Times‘ Mark Leibovich, a journalist writing a book about how Washington works. It’s the sort of thing that happens hundreds of times a day, every day. Who cares?

But that’s not quite what happened here. Dana Milbank has a really terrific column on the story today.

The latest symptom of our deformed political-journalistic complex presented this week, when news broke that the office of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House committee in charge of probing the Obama administration, had been secretly forwarding private correspondence with journalists to an author writing a book about Washington. This caused a great kerfuffle among reporters and a fear that the release of the e-mails could prove them to be sycophants: flattering Issa and his staff in hopes that favorable coverage would be rewarded with scraps of news.

The episode makes everybody look bad. Issa, a man with subpoena power, was having his staff work as his personal publicists rather than doing honest government work. Issa’s spokesman, Kurt Bardella, was justifiably fired for his double dealings with reporters. And reporters were (or soon will be) exposed as currying favor with the powerful.

D.C. political reporters suddenly took a keen interest in this, not because Issa’s top aide was passing along information to a reporter, but because Issa’s top aide was passing along their information to a different reporter, and they didn’t know anything about it.

And if the public realized the kinds of things Capitol Hill reporters say and do to gain access, a lot of these reporters would be pretty humiliated. Indeed, Politico has been all over this story, at least in part because it’s the publication that stands to lose the most credibility if the emails Bardella passed along to Leibovich were made public. As Milbank noted, “That publication had done more than any other to increase Issa’s profile, with items such as ‘Issa aims to unmask health care deals’ and ‘Sheriff Issa’s top six targets.’”

That said, it’s certainly not the only major outlet “that played footsie with the 27-year-old Bardella as part of a culture in which journalists implicitly provide positive coverage in exchange for tidbits of news.”

Issa, meanwhile, has worked hard to raise his visibility and position himself as a credible GOP leader, and this flap has clearly damaged his standing. Politico, apparently feeling burned, reported today, “[T]he only politician Issa has taken down a few notches is himself.”

The same piece noted that aides on the House Oversight Committee are now “combing through correspondence between Bardella and Leibovich to make sure nothing sensitive was leaked,” and quoted a GOP staffer saying Issa has done damage to his ability to chair the panel effectively.

Making matters slightly worse, the New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza, who first learned of the emails between Bardella and Leibovich, reported yesterday that Issa’s entire operation knew about Bardella’s media-related activities.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Issa’s predecessor as committee chairman, said yesterday of his successor, “He’s not gotten off to a good start.”

That seems like a fair assessment.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.