New York Times So Touchy About Reporter Who Was Touching Her Source
It pains me as a fellow bespectacled black man to admit this, but New York Times Editor Dean Baquet has led the Gray Lady during a period of stunning mediocrity and wackadoodle normalization. The streak continued Tuesday when Baquet announced he was reassigning reporter Ali Watkins after discovering she'd misled her superiors by telling them things they chose to ignore.
The New York Times announced Tuesday that it has reassigned reporter Ali Watkins, whose three-year affair with a Senate aide came to light as part of a leak investigation by the Justice Department. Watkins, 26, had a relationship with Senate Intelligence Committee aide James Wolfe, who's been charged with making false statements to the FBI about his contacts with journalists. Her phone and email records were seized by the Department of Justice as part of the leak probe. The Times said Watkins will be assigned a mentor and transferred to a beat in New York.
Don't get too rough there, Mr. Baquet! Twenty-six-year-old me would've loved a paid New York Times internship in Manhattan with my very own
drinking buddy mentor! This has been spun as a "demotion." Maybe technically it is, but Watkins is just moving from Washington DC to New York. I once worked at a South Carolina newspaper that transferred a reporter to its bureau in a rural town where she shared a copy desk with a chain-smoking donkey. That felt like a demotion. I don't propose that Baquet push Watkins in front of a speeding subway train, but there must be a happy medium.
In a staff memo, Baquet directly addressed the Department of Justice's brazen actions (pulling her phone and email records for years) and some more by the Department of Homeland Security (spying on her, threatening her, trying to blackmail her, the usual) before detailing the "concerns" he had about Watkins's conduct.
But this case has also raised questions about the line between private and professional life. We are troubled by Ali's conduct, particularly while she was employed by other news organizations. For a reporter to have an intimate relationship with someone he or she covers is unacceptable. It violates our written standards and the norms of journalism. Additionally, on the advice of her personal lawyer, she did not disclose to The Times that her records had been seized months ago, which put our news organization in a difficult position.
So, why does she still have a job?
Ali is a talented journalist, and no one has challenged the accuracy of her reporting. She has also made some poor judgments. But as she started her career, I believe she was not well served by some editors elsewhere who failed to respond appropriately to her disclosures about her relationships. We also bear some responsibility: Our inquiry found that during the hiring process she disclosed aspects of her past relationships to some editors at The Times.
Oh, I'm sorry. I should more correctly inquire as to why any of your dumb asses have jobs. Whoever interviewed Watkins apparently scribbled on their notepads "willing to work weekends," "loves YouTube puppy videos," and "slept with Senate aide" but only the part about the puppy videos made it up the food chain? Is that how this works? Can't you guys do anything right? I was promised a new era of competence after you ended Jayson Blair's prominent career in fiction.
What good is this "demotion" anyway? It just hangs Watkins out to dry. This isn't like Glenn Thrush, who can return to the Times with his tail between his legs after accusations of sexual harassment. The right will see blood in the water over Watkins. I predict she'll headline the latest outrage marathon at FOX News before eventually losing her job outright. My former colleague who wound up working with that donkey never recovered professionally.
Watkins, 26, has denied that Wolfe was a source in her reporting on national security, while she worked for McClatchy, BuzzFeed, HuffPost and Politico. She disclosed her relationship with Wolfe to these publications in varying degrees of detail, according to the Times. She sometimes cited Wolfe by name and position, and other times she didn't.
But if Wolfe lied about his contact with Watkins, why would anyone believe Watkins when she claims the man she dated was never a source in her reporting? The Times even stomps all over its own reporter's narrative in a deep-dive it published on Sunday.
[The] Times reported that the relationship was a "complicated" matter in this respect: "She would make a mental note of tidbits he mentioned offhand, or gossip with him about Capitol Hill, or throw out a fact and gauge his reply," said the story. Sounds like a source.
There is a heated debate over whether an intimate relationship with a source is an inexcusable violation of journalistic norms. I'm not entirely convinced that Times reporters screwing their sources is any worse than the Times itself screwing all of us with its soft porn stories about white working class Trump supporters. Also, there is a historic power imbalance to consider: Older men are the power players in DC. If you want to break stories, you need to get close to the power players. Men are kind of trash about having ulterior motives when they offer opportunities to young women. That's been a theme in the days of #MeToo.
It's easy for me to say that 20something SER wouldn't have become romantically involved with a potential source. I'm a straight male. Far fewer women are power players. And the ones that are usually aren't creepazoids like Wolfe was.
The Times reports the 50-something Wolfe pursued Watkins when she was a 22-year-old intern with McClatchy. A pearl bracelet was part of the offensive. After their relationship waned in the fall of 2017, Wolfe apparently used his position with the Senate Intelligence Committee to broker other line-crossing ventures:
About the same time, Mr. Wolfe, too, appeared to be moving on. He gave another young female reporter covering the Intelligence Committee some valuable information, according to a person with direct knowledge of the interaction. Then he sent her a series of personal nighttime texts, including one at 10 p.m. asking her what she was up to. She deflected his inquiries and never got another tip from him, the person said.
Someone exactly as cynical as I am might argue that higher-ups at the Times weren't just fully aware of the relationship between Watkins and Wolfe but were fine with it to the extent such "access journalism" proved useful. When the "rhymes with 'it'" hit the fan, they chose to marginalize Watkins (sure, I'd love to be similarly marginalized, but this isn't about me).
It's absurd for Baquet to use Goodfellas tactics for deflecting any responsibility for what happens at his paper on his watch: "Oh, the capo told the underboss that someone was getting whacked? No one told me? I'm just a respectable newspaperman."
Times Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd both resigned in the aftermath of the Blair fiasco. Post-Russia, post-Wolfe, Baquet should consider following their lead.
Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He recently fled Seattle, where he did theatre work for Book-It Rep and Cafe Nordo.