Just when you thought contemporary journalism couldn’t sink any lower, along comes Ali Watkins, now 26, a reporter for the New York Times whose rapid rise through reporting’s corrupt and partisan ranks includes stints at the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and Politico. Back in February, Ms. Watkins suddenly became the object of official attention when the feds seized her email and phone records as part of an investigation into a prominent Senate staffer, James Wolfe — the former security director for the Senate Intelligence Committee and a Democrat, of course. Then, in June, Wolfe was arrested and charged with lying to the FBI, which was investigating leaks from the committee to select reporters… among whom was Ali Watkins.
It turns out that Watkins had been involved in a sexual relationship with Wolfe for three years, although at the time of Wolfe’s arrest she had moved on to greener pastures, including other staffers on the committee:
In December, before she started work at The Times, Ms. Watkins told the paper’s national security editor, Amy Fiscus, about her previous relationships with staff members of the Senate committee… Ms. Fiscus relayed the information to the paper’s Washington bureau chief, Elisabeth Bumiller.
Ms. Fiscus and Ms. Bumiller said in interviews that they did not feel her past relationships should be a barrier to hiring her, because Ms. Watkins said that Mr. Wolfe had not been a source during their relationship, and because she would not be covering the Senate Intelligence Committee. They did not go back to ask Ms. Watkins’s previous employers about how she handled her involvement with Mr. Wolfe, and Ms. Bumiller did not inform other top newsroom leaders of the relationship. Ms. Watkins was also interviewed by several other senior editors before being hired.
On Dec. 14, days before her start date, Ms. Watkins was approached by two F.B.I. agents with questions about Mr. Wolfe, a conversation she immediately reported to her editors in the Times Washington bureau. In February, however, Ms. Watkins received a letter that she did not tell her editors about: a notice from the Justice Department, informing her that investigators had seized some of her email and phone records.
A responsible journalistic organization would never have hired this little scamp, but at the Times, which is hell-bent on turning its formerly white male newsroom into a model of “diversity,” being female trumped all other considerations, and the newspaper is clearly grooming Watkins for bigger things. But now that the truth is out about how this particular reporter got her scoops, a responsible journalistic organization would have fired her.
The Times, alas, is not that journalistic organization:
Ali Watkins, the New York Times reporter whose email and phone records were secretly seized by the Trump administration, will be transferred out of the newspaper’s Washington bureau and reassigned to a new beat in New York, The Times said on Tuesday.
Ms. Watkins, 26, had been the subject of an internal review by The Times after revelations that she had a three-year affair with a high-ranking aide on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which she covered for several news organizations before joining The Times in December.
The aide, James Wolfe, 57, who handled classified material for the committee, was arrested last month as part of a leak investigation in which the Justice Department also seized Ms. Watkins’s communications, an unusually aggressive move against a journalist that prompted an outcry from press advocates. Mr. Wolfe was charged with lying to the F.B.I. but not with leaking classified information; he has pleaded not guilty.
Ms. Watkins, who had been covering federal law enforcement at The Times, will be assigned a mentor and moved to a new beat in New York “for a fresh start,” the paper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, wrote in a memo to the newsroom. “We hold our journalists and their work to the highest standards,” Mr. Baquet wrote. “We are giving Ali an opportunity to show that she can live up to them. I believe she can.” He added: “I also believe that The Times must be a humane place that can allow for second chances when there are mitigating circumstances.”
Bollocks. What mitigating circumstances? And why is the Times so hell-bent on protecting this kid? If Watkins had a shred of decency, dignity, or ethics, she would have resigned months ago — and certainly right after the paper’s 3,000-word invitation to her and her boss in the Washington bureau, Elisabeth Bumiller, to leave. And did she? Of course not:
In a statement on Tuesday, Ms. Watkins wrote: “I respect and understand the Times’s review and agree that I should have handled aspects of my past relationships and disclosures differently. I sincerely regret putting The Times in a difficult position and am very grateful for the support I’ve received from my editors and colleagues here. I also appreciate the review’s conclusion that my reporting has been fact-based and accurate.”
Who said it wasn’t? The straw-man defense has no bearing on the disgrace Watkins has brought upon every institution she’s touched, starting with her alma mater, Temple University, and landing on Times Square. Nor will the Times‘s attempt to distract attention from its very own in-house sex scandal by complaining about the Trump administration work, either — although that’s what they’d really like this story to be about.
The story of Ms. Watkins’s affair rattled Washington journalists and raised questions about prosecutorial overreach and journalistic ethics. In his 575-word memo, Mr. Baquet acknowledged the complexity and sensitivity of Ms. Watkins’s situation.
“As an institution, we abhor the actions of the government in this case,” he wrote, calling the Justice Department’s seizure of her records “an attempt to interfere with the work of journalists by an administration whose leader has called the media ‘the enemy of the people.’” Other Times journalists have noticed sources “clamming up because of this assault of on how we do our jobs,” he wrote.
But, Mr. Baquet added, “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.”
Apparently not. But let’s get something straight — the First Amendment does not shield reporters from the consequences of their actions. When the government grabbed Watkins’s records, it was acting in pursuit of a criminal case, not trying to implement the dreaded “chilling effect” journalists are always banging on about.
The revelation that federal prosecutors seized years’ worth of email and phone records from a New York Times reporter drew criticism on Friday from news organizations and press rights groups, which expressed outrage at the first known instance of the Trump administration’s pursuing the private communications of a journalist.
The Committee to Protect Journalists called the move “a fundamental threat to press freedom.” The Times, in its own statement, called the seizure “an outrageous overreach” and raised concerns about a chilling effect on journalists’ ability to report on the government.
Further, if sleeping with your sources is “how we do our jobs,” well… there’s a word for that, and it isn’t reporting.