Legendary New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal once fired a newly hired reporter when he learned she’d had an intimate relationship with one of the people she reported on at her previous newspaper. Michael Goodwin explains what happened next:
Word of the incident spread quickly through the newsroom, and several female reporters complained to Rosenthal. They argued that the woman was treated unfairly, at which point Abe raised his finger for silence and said something to this effect: ‘I don’t care if you f–k an elephant on your personal time, but then you can’t cover the circus for the paper.’
The Times faced a remarkably similar employee problem recently. One of its reporters was found to have been sleeping with someone she covered at her previous newspaper. The news went public when her ex-boyfriend was arrested for lying to the FBI about his voluminous contacts with reporters. To further complicate matters, her records had been seized by the Department of Justice during its investigation into the ex-boyfriend.
Journalists and their defenders get agitated when government officials impinge or threaten to impinge on the press freedoms protected in the First Amendment. Some observers, such as this journalism professor, thought that was the only issue of interest in this sordid tale:
The government overreach is the *actual* issue. Not a female reporter’s sex life. But carry on. https://t.co/m1VhqAVkIC
— Victoria M. Walker (@vikkie) July 7, 2018
Government overreach absolutely is an issue. But so are journalism ethics, the mishandling of classified information, and threats against congressional oversight.
Who Did What When?
The Department of Justice announced in June that it arrested a former Senate staffer and charged him with lying to the FBI about his voluminous contacts with reporters who broke stories based on leaks of classified and sensitive information he was privy to. James Wolfe, 57, spent nearly 30 years on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence before leaving his director of security post, where he was responsible for receiving, maintaining, managing, and safeguarding the committee’s classified information.
The indictment detailed contacts with four of the reporters he claimed never to have dealt with, including one with whom he had a lengthy intimate relationship beginning while she was in college. The New York Times recently reported on that relationship between Ali Watkins, 26, one of their national security reporters, and Wolfe.
Watkins was nominated for a Pulitzer while a college intern at McClatchy for a story she co-wrote based on leaks regarding the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The Pulitzer Committee noted the nomination was for “timely coverage of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture, demonstrating initiative and perseverance in overcoming government efforts to hide the details.”
Watkins later reported on national security, including the work of the committee, for Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and Politico, before being hired at the Times. The Department of Justice seized years’ worth of her phone and email records as part of their investigation of Wolfe. All of the major players in this story — Watkins, Wolfe, The New York Times, and the Department of Justice — behaved in less than admirable fashion. Let’s look at the problems with each.
Watkins had a three-year affair with Wolfe, a married Senate aide who served on that committee. Although she implausibly claims she didn’t use him as a source, she admits he shared information with her. He also sent her an email talking about how he liked to help her out in her career by sharing information. When Watkins and her lover broke up last year, she began dating another Senate staffer on the same committee.
It is wrong to have a romantic relationship with a married man you are not married to. In no world is it considered ethical to have an intimate relationship with someone you cover, because it doesn’t just make you appear to be biased, it makes you biased. It’s particularly wrong to have a relationship that is undisclosed to readers.
Honesty about the relationship to the source can harm the overall effect of the story. “This dude who’s cheating on his wife with me said…” just doesn’t have the same authority as “according to a senior intelligence official,” after all. Still, it should be disclosed. As one New York Times story about Watkins noted, an editor at one of her previous publications named Sam Stein was married to an Obama administration official, a fact he disclosed in his stories. In some cases, Watkins partially disclosed her relationship to her editors, a disclosure that should have been taken far more seriously than it was in every case.
Watkins’ stories based on anonymous leaks dealt with the Russia collusion narrative that has been rather uncritically pushed by the media. Sleeping with sources also reinforces negative stereotypes about reporters, a stereotype that particularly harms female journalists. Critics frequently suggest that anti-Trump media and anti-Trump members of the intelligence community are in bed together. It wasn’t meant to be taken literally.
It is wrong to cheat on your wife. It is wrong to mishandle the trust the government places on you to handle classified information. Wolfe’s job was to receive, maintain, manage, and safeguard classified information for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. His job was not to talk about his work with reporters.
The indictment suggests the reporters Wolfe was in contact with wrote stories about information he was privy to regarding Carter Page, a Trump associate who was under electronic and human surveillance in recent years after being named in an opposition research document secretly bought and paid for by Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. That document alleged Page was at the center of a treasonous plot to collude with Russia to steal the 2016 election. Despite the extraordinary surveillance, he has not been charged with any crime. Government officials have regularly leaked information about him. He disputes the allegations in the dossier. Leaking the fact that he was under a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant is itself a crime.
The leak of the FISA wiretap against Page occurred in the very middle of the government’s surveillance of Page. It was a major story in the “treasonous collusion with Russia” narrative many in the media promulgated. Watkins’ story about previous FBI interaction with Page also helped support the Russia hysteria, even though the story’s spin was dubious.
“A Former Trump Adviser Met With A Russian Spy,” blared the headline to the story, which said he’d “met with and passed documents to a Russian intelligence operative” in 2013. The documents were only samples of lectures he gave to students. Despite the dramatic language from Watkins, Page was not charged with doing anything wrong with Russian agents, but his cooperation with federal officials helped bring the Russian spies to justice. Selective leaks from government officials with access to sensitive information crafted a false narrative that has objectively harmed Page.
Department of Justice
The Department of Justice has been leaking like a sieve in recent years. Fired FBI director James Comey routinely used friends to shape news stories, even when it meant sharing classified memos. His deputy Andrew McCabe was later fired for lying about leaks to the media. Stories that follow their style of “leaks to shape the narrative” continue to pop up, such as this one about DOJ
acting deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein that was in The New York Times last week.
When the DOJ inspector general released a report about the FBI’s handling of the Clinton email investigation, it included repeated condemnation of the FBI’s culture of leaking. “Although FBI policy strictly limits the employees who are authorized to speak to the media, we found that this policy appeared to be widely ignored during the period we reviewed,” the report said. “We identified numerous FBI employees, at all levels of the organization and with no official reason to be in contact with the media, who were nevertheless in frequent contact with reporters.”
A diagram attached to the report showed rampant leaking to the media in just a few time periods analyzed. And that’s not all:
In addition, we identified instances where FBI employees improperly received benefits from reporters, including tickets to sporting events, golfing outings, drinks and meals, and admittance to nonpublic social events. We will separately report on those investigations as they are concluded, consistent with the Inspector General Act, other applicable federal statutes, and OIG policy.
Instead of looking inward at the leak problem, the Department of Justice went hunting for leaks from those who perform their oversight. It’s not that they can’t do it, but given the problems that come from investigating one’s overseers it’s not an unalloyed good to see the DOJ seeking to blame outsiders in a separate branch of government for the rampant leak problem the agency faces. That’s particularly true when the other branch of government performs oversight that is designed to hold the Justice Department accountable.
The other issue is that the DOJ seized reporter records in order to nab the Senate aide. Although they reportedly didn’t get the content of Watkins’ emails and phone calls, the seizure of the metadata can still pose serious threats to constitutionally protected journalistic freedoms.
Reporters don’t have a First Amendment right to participate in crimes such as the felonious leaking of information, but a robust First Amendment culture has protected reporters from overreach by the government. While Wolfe was the clear target of the investigation, wrapping up journalists can also have a chilling effect on their ability to report on the government and hold it accountable.
The New York Times
The New York Times code of ethics says, “Even though this topic defies hard and fast rules, it is essential that we preserve a professional detachment, free of any whiff of bias. Staff members may see sources informally over a meal or drinks, but they must keep in mind the difference between legitimate business and personal friendship… Clearly, romantic involvement with a news source would foster an appearance of partiality.”
Clearly The New York Times doesn’t take these concerns as seriously as they did when Rosenthal was in charge. The publication messed up in multiple ways. It messed up by hiring someone they knew had slept with people she covered. Then it messed up by keeping her employed after the world learned about her unethical behavior.
Some have theorized that The New York Times had to keep Watkins after allowing reporter Glenn Thrush to keep his job. He was the target of an article alleging drunken and caddish behavior with female colleagues. The allegations were made in a reported piece written by one of the women who experienced this behavior. I’m truly no fan of Thrush’s partisanship or allegations of sexual improprieties, but the story was journalistically irresponsible. Still, perhaps the Times felt it couldn’t keep Thrush on the payroll but fire Watkins, despite the different nature of the claims made against them.
Others have theorized that the Times kept Watkins on simply because it couldn’t afford to give President Trump a victory in his battle with a biased media. Watkins uncritically received anti-Trump leaks and published them. Firing her for her unethical journalistic behavior, even if it is the only appropriate course of action, would be a gift to him.
Ethical standards exist for a reason, and when they break down in media, government, and law enforcement all at once, public trust becomes difficult to impossible. One can and should oppose the bad behavior on display from everyone, whether reporters and editors, law enforcement officials, or government officers charged with protecting the nation’s secrets.