July 12, 2018

MOLLIE HEMINGWAY: Everybody Is Wrong About The Ali Watkins Scoops-For-Sex Scandal: All of the major players in this story — Ali Watkins, James Wolfe, The New York Times, and the Department of Justice — behaved in less than admirable fashion.

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.

Actually, you could explain a lot of journalism and politics by charting who in DC is sleeping with who.