With the press under assault, the stakes are too high for journalists to fail on basic ethics

The Trump Administration's seizure of a New York Times reporter’s communications is unacceptable. But so is her failure of ethical journalism.

President Trump has assaulted the press in so many ways it’s hard to keep track, but the revelation of the secret seizure of a reporter’s private communications — following a precedent set by the Obama administration — is one of the most consequential.

It’s an effort to cut off the pipeline of leaks in the public interest, stopping reporters from exposing hidden government actions by intimidating sources, silencing whistleblowers and undermining faith in the press. So why aren’t we hearing more about it?

When records of New York Times, Associated Press and Fox News journalists were collected during Obama-era probes of their sources, the journalists became symbols, their cases rallying points in defense of the First Amendment. This time, outcry from press advocates over the seizure of New York Times’ reporter Ali Watkins’ email and phone records has been drowned out by the revelation that Watkins, 26, was in a years-long secret relationship with James A. Wolfe, the married, 57-year-old security director for the Senate Intelligence Committee, while covering the committee before she joined the Times.

Watkins has denied that Wolfe gave her classified information. The Times denounced the government’s seizure — before saying it would investigate her work for the paper in light of the revelations.

An affair between a reporter and source muddies the waters — and that’s surely why the Trump administration chose this case. What better way to take down a suspected leaker and discredit a reporter, her employers, and the news media than to expose an embarrassing secret that makes the press look unethical?

The Justice Department’s intrusion on reporters’ confidential sources is wholly unacceptable. But so too is the failure of a reporter and her managers to abide by some of the most fundamental principles of ethical journalism.

At a moment when the news media is under continuous attack by the president and his loyalists — with false claims that we fabricate stories, threats to suppress the news, and violent attacks and arrests of reporters — the stakes are so high that it’s essential we conduct ourselves in ways that are above reproach. If we violate norms of an independent, principled press, we undermine our cause and credibility.

Journalists who hold officials accountable serve the public by gathering information impartially, avoiding real or perceived conflicts of interest that could discredit our reporting, and acting transparently. Those three basic principles weren’t followed here.

Watkins and her bosses aren’t accused of any crime; it’s not illegal to publish leaks. But if there’s a teaching moment for journalism ethics, this is it. A romantic relationship with a source is a line not worth crossing. It casts a shadow over the reporting, raising concerns about whether favors were traded, preferential coverage was given or an ax was ground for a source. In the #MeToo era, questions will inevitably be raised about power and access. If the relationship overcomes all those obstacles, then pursue the romance — but get off the beat.

It’s not a news flash that you can have a romantic partner and you can have a source, but they can’t be the same person. In the 1970s, Abe Rosenthal, then editor of the Times, learned that a new reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer had been involved with a Pennsylvania politician she had covered there. Rosenthal fired her, and was famously quoted saying, “I don’t care if you fuck an elephant, just so long as you don’t cover the circus.”

Wolfe, who for 30 years was head of security for the intelligence committee, has been indicted for allegedly lying to FBI investigators about contacts with Watkins and other reporters to whom he’s suspected of leaking classified information. Watkins was apparently the only one whose records were seized.

According to the indictment, their relationship allegedly began around December 2013 when Watkins was a college intern reporting on the committee, among other things, and ended around December 2017, the month she joined The New York Times and switched beats to law enforcement. Watkins was a Pulitzer finalist for reporting on the Senate intel committee as an intern and cub reporter, and enjoyed a meteoric rise on national security, one of the toughest beats in Washington. She was hired by five prestigious newsrooms in four years.

Over three-and-a-half years, Watkins and Wolfe “exchanged tens of thousands of electronic communications, often including daily texts and phone calls, and they frequently met in person at a variety of locations including Hart Senate Office Building stairwells, restaurants, and [Watkins’] apartment,” the government alleges. It cited 82 text messages and a 28-minute phone call between the pair on March 17, 2017, the day the Senate intelligence committee learned Russian spies tried to recruit former Trump advisor Carter Page, a story Watkins later broke for Buzzfeed News.

British and Australian media seized this week on old, cringe-inducing tweets by Watkins about “House of Cards,” the Netflix drama in which a young reporter named Zoe Barnes has an ill-fated affair with a married congressman. In June 2013, Watkins, then an intern, tweeted: “So on a scale of 1 to ethical, how does everyone feel about pulling a @RealZoeBarnes for story ideas? #TOTALLYKIDDING @HouseofCards.” It was a joke made by a college senior, but critics pounced this week, posting snarky retorts on Twitter.

In 2014, Watkins was part of a three-person team at McClatchy later named Pulitzer finalists “for timely coverage of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on CIA torture...overcoming government efforts to hide the details.” McClatchy vice president of news Tim Grieve told the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple that the company was unaware of the relationship and is considering whether an ethical review of Watkins’ tenure is warranted.

Her former bosses at HuffPost and Buzzfeed News have said Watkins disclosed the relationship and the situation was “managed,” without explaining how they ensured her relationship was not used to gain information. The fact that Watkins was an intern when the romance began, according to the government’s timeline, and may have been poorly counseled by managers who permitted her to stay on a beat where she had a conflict of interest doesn’t make the press look better.

Just as we don’t pay for information lest it be tainted, having a relationship with a source compromises the integrity of one’s reporting. That’s why journalists recuse themselves from covering issues in which they, their partners or close family members have a significant interest or access to non-public information.

In a bizarre twist, a Customs and Border Protection official confronted Watkins last year with dates of overseas trips she took with Wolfe, seeking to coerce her into investigating other reporters and their confidential sources. Unsettled, Watkins reported the incident to her supervisors at Politico, who treated it as a security issue. In retrospect, it’s hard to understand how a young reporter who told more experienced managers at three newsrooms about her relationship wasn’t barred from covering the intelligence committee, considering that any whiff of impropriety would undercut those stories.

If Wolfe wasn’t a source for her scoops, the suspicion cast over Watkins’ hard work must be crushing for her and her colleagues. A pro-Trump website American Greatness spun it as a morality tale: “Don’t sleep your way to the top.” That may be unfair to a terrific reporter, but compromising one’s independence with a source undermines one’s credibility with the public.

The Times’ ethics policy states “relationships with sources require the utmost in sound judgment and self-discipline...Clearly, romantic involvement with a news source would foster an appearance of partiality. Therefore staff members who develop close relationships with people who might figure in coverage they provide, edit, package or supervise must disclose those relationships.” In some cases, “no further action may be needed.” In others, journalists may have to recuse themselves from certain coverage or be reassigned to a new department (remember: “don’t cover the circus”).

After she was hired and before she started at the Times last December, Watkins disclosed her relationship, which she said had ended. Some eyebrows were raised, but she had been hired for a different beat, so the issue seemed moot. On the advice of her lawyer, Watkins didn’t tell her Times bosses that her email and phone records were seized when she was informed in February. I’m no attorney, but we journalists are in the transparency business, and it seems like a bad idea to withhold information from one’s editors.

Times editors surely would have wanted to know earlier, especially since they’d had records seized under the Obama administration. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Matt Apuzzo — whose records were collected when he was at the AP — noted on the Times’ podcast The Daily this week that we wouldn’t know about CIA “black sites,” eavesdropping on Americans, the use of drones to kill suspects including an American, and much more were it not for sources who leaked information in the public interest — a pipeline the government is trying to sever.

The stories Watkins broke were important, too — a probe into torture; CIA spying on a Senate committee; Russian spies trying to recruit a Trump advisor. And it’s also true that having a relationship on her beat made her vulnerable to attempted extortion, to having her personal life exposed in an indictment, to questions about her credibility.

Our careers should be longer than any one scoop or series. That means playing the long game — and not doing anything that could cost us our reputations.

  • Profile picture for user Indira

    Indira Lakshmanan

    Indira Lakshmanan, the Newmark chair in journalism ethics at Poynter and a Boston Globe columnist, has covered coups, campaigns and revolutions in 80 countries and the US for the Globe, Bloomberg, the International New York Times, NPR, PBS and Politico Magazine.

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