Apparently the “Deep State” has joined forces with “Fake News,” at least in the view of that rock of journalism integrity, Breibart News.

The darling of right-wing or alt-right media offered a (leaked email) exposé on how The New York Times “colluded with the president of government union to encourage and solicit … leaks.”

The piece by Breibart Washington editor Matthew Boyle, expressed shock, just shock, at the fact that Times reporter Coral Davenport emailed the head of a union representing EPA workers looking for sources to provide “concrete examples of [an] unusual secretary” for a story about Administrator Scott Pruitt.

The “exclusive” provoked rounds of mockery from journalists on social media for its revelation of, horrors, how reporters actually reach out to contacts to look for real evidence they can weave into a story.

In other words, do their jobs.

Leave aside for the moment the hypocrisy that Boyle’s story is sourced by anonymously obtained emails, the epitome of the “fake news” charge leveled by Donald Trump supporters.

Rather, it displays either a stunning naiveté of how journalism happens or, more likely, an effort to further tarnish the reputation of a profession Breitbart readers loath with the intensity of a thousand suns.

But in an odd sense, it also exposes a potential flaw in basic news gathering, using the same methods it is trying to tap to ferret out ill-conceived practices. Davenport writes:

I’ve heard a lot of second-hand rumors, but in order to report these incidents, I’d need to have first-hand or eyewitness accounts. I’m looking for examples of things like, information being communicated only verbally when it would historically have been put in writing, people being told not to bring phones, laptops or even take notes in meetings where they would in the past typically have done so, eyewitness accounts of things like the administrator or top political appointees refusing to use official email, phones or computers, or any other specific, first-hand examples of practices that appear to demonstrate unprecedented secrecy or transparency.

As technology advanced, journalism has kept pace in moving away from “shoe leather” reporting where journalists go to a location, take hand-written notes and then turn those scribblings into coherent prose. Not so any more, which is where her “troubles” start.

When email first emerged I took a wary view on whether the person I was communicating with actual was who he or she claimed to be. Phone calls were a better way to confirm a source, provided of course you knew them well enough to recognize their voice.

I drifted into public sector work and quickly learned anything and everything you did in email was indeed public. That taught me, at least, to be careful with the words I chose and the messages I forwarded.

That was light years ago in technology terms and today’s journalists are far less careful, at least as far as initial inquiries go. Davenport offers sources the option of encrypted messaging apps, but she also reinforces what should be the real message of this Boyle hit piece:

We’re VERY sensitive to the need to protect career folks who speak to us, and we DO NOT want to endanger anyone’s employment. But, in order to ensure that our reporting is based on facts rather than rumors, we do need to feel sure that the examples we give are based on first-hand or eyewitness experiences rather than second and third-hand rumors.

It’s also worthwhile to circle back on the use of the word “leak.” In the classic sense it is the use of sensitive material, often from a source who requests his or her name not be used. Woodward & Bernstein’s “Deep Throat,” remains the icon, a shadowy figure in a parking garage who whispers in the dark.

But anonymous sources are confidential, not fictitious (unlike say John Miller or John Barron). Both the reporters and Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee knew it was a high-ranking Justice Department official. And the secrecy around FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt was highly unusual. In virtually every other case, an editor knows exactly who the source is.

Today “leak” can mean just about anything someone doesn’t want to be publicly known — much like fake news is now an epithet that reflects a story the subject dislikes. The information is often not confidential but simply embarassing.

Both words are like red meat to the Trump base, not to mention the president himself. Hence the effort to make Davenport’s solicitation of potentially embarrassing information seem sinister.

In the end, Davenport’s biggest “sin” in conscientiously digging for a story was using open email rather than encrypted messaging options.

Boyle’s biggest sin was using the same tools he was condemning. But in one sense his biggest contribution was to expose how real journalism happens.

Even if his readers could care less. Any that’s the pity.

Strategic communicator dabbling in political punditry. Professing journalism at @COMatBU. Strangely still loyal to Cleveland Indians & Browns. Opinions my own.