by Michael Goodwin · June 10, 2018
On previous occasions, I’ve written about the blunt way legendary New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal dealt with a conflict of interest. The story bears repeating after the indictment of a top Senate official over his contacts with reporters, including one from the Times with whom he had a romantic relationship.
The Rosenthal standard on conflicts was shaped by a remarkably similar case decades ago. Soon after a woman who had covered politics in Philadelphia was hired by the Times, a story from Philly said she had a secret affair with a politician she covered and accepted expensive gifts from him.
Rosenthal asked the woman if the story was true and, when she replied yes, immediately told her to clean out her desk and said she would never again work for the paper.
Word of the incident spread quickly through the newsroom, and several female reporters complained to Rosenthal. They argued that the woman was treated unfairlyand, 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 meeting was over, case closed.
His point was not about private conduct. It was about the credibility of the paper. When the two conflict, the paper must come first.
That lesson came rushing back to me as I read about the case involving James Wolfe, the longtime security director of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Federal prosecutors charged Wolfe with three counts of lying to investigators about his contacts with reporters, one of whom is Ali Watkins, who covers federal law enforcement for the Times.
The feds allege that Wolfe used encrypted phone apps and other tools to leak secret information. One article cited was written by Watkins on April 3, 2017, when she worked for BuzzFeed, and involved Carter Page. Part of the orgy of leaks targeting President Trump, the article says Page “met with and passed documents to a Russian intelligence operative” in 2013.
As part of the probe into Wolfe, the government seized e-mail and phone records belonging to Watkins, although it reportedly has not accessed the contents. Nonetheless, the Times and others reacted with outrage, saying the seizure threatens a free press.
Ex-Senate Intel staffer charged with lying to feds about reporter contacts
A former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer has been indicted on…
“All leak investigations — whether they directly target reporters or not — are a grave threat to press freedom,” the Freedom of the Press Foundation said in a statement. “Whistleblowers are the lifeblood of reporting, and the Trump administration is directly attacking journalists’ rights by bringing these cases.”
I agree that any government action that chills free expression is worrisome, but the First Amendment is not a license to break the law. As such, the foundation’s condemnation is so wrong-headed that it serves only to undercut support for media freedom.
Its absolutism about the “grave threat” of all leak investigations is ridiculous and, if that were the law, it would be impossible for America to keep any secrets.
Moreover, the suggestion that Wolfe was a whistleblower is not based on known facts. There is, however, strong evidence that he was leaking secured information to reporters, including his lover, although he is charged so far only with lying.
While many details remain unknown, it is already clear that Watkins’ highly unethical conduct presents a problem for press defenders. Hers is not the hill they should volunteer to die on.
Start with the fact that Watkins admits she was sleeping with Wolfe when she covered his Senate panel for BuzzFeed and Politico.
Although sexual relationships with sources are taboo at most large news organizations, editors at BuzzFeed and Politico said they knew about Watkins’ relationship with Wolfe, but allowed her to continue covering the panel.
The admission is shocking yet not surprising given the collapse of journalism standards in the age of Trump. Pure hatred of this president in newsrooms across America is blinding editors and reporters to basic fairness and glaring conflicts of interest.
Public trust in the media is at an all-time low, and this case illustrates a seedy link between the Washington press corps and the Washington swamp.
The Times says Watkins informed editors of the romance when she joined the paper in December of 2017, but she claimed Wolfe never gave her classified information and said the relationship had ended.
Yet whether Wolfe gave her classified information or merely routine secrets shouldn’t matter. The point is that her secret relationship with a source created a serious conflict of interest in her coverage.
Another ethics problem is that the Times reports that the paper learned only Thursday that the Justice Department had notified Watkins last February that it seized her phone and e-mail records.
Her decision to withhold that critical fact from editors should weigh heavily against her. It also should temper the outrage of her defenders, given that she wasn’t alarmed enough to disclose the seizure and continued to write about the Trump administration while hiding her role in a criminal investigation.
Indeed, other journalists are highlighting tweets Watkins wrote last year saying the Senate intel panel suspected the White House of leaks. That raises the possibility she was spreading disinformation to protect Wolfe from suspicion.
So far, the Times says it won’t fire her, reflecting how deeply it is caught in a web of its own making. As more facts emerge, will it continue to excuse Watkins’ behavior because of its own anti-Trump bias, or will it measure her against its traditional standards of professional integrity?
I know what Abe Rosenthal would do. In fact, he would have done it already.
An ap’parent’ success
Reader Damian McShane adds a dimension to the success of Asian-American students at New York’s top schools. He writes: “It’s generally accepted that children raised in two-parent homes have a leg up on kids growing up in single-parent situations.
“Asian-Americans have the lowest out-of-wedlock birth rate, followed by whites, Hispanics and blacks. This is not a coincidence but it’s never factored into the discussion.”
An ap’parent’ success
Columnist Charles Krauthammer says he has just weeks to live
Charles Krauthammer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative columnist who was paralyzed…
The announcement by Charles Krauthammer that he has weeks to live is unbearably awful news. A psychiatrist-turned-speechwriter-turned-Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, Krauthammer
is the most incisive commentator of our era.
In his columns and appearances on Fox News, Krauthammer demonstrated an exceptional gift for precision of thought and language. Permanently paralyzed by an accident, he often delivered his opinions with a wry wit.
He withdrew for surgery nearly a year ago and said in a Friday letter that he was cancer-free a month ago, but now the cancer is back and spreading rapidly.
“My doctors tell me their best estimate is that I have only a few weeks left to live,” he wrote. “This is the final verdict. My fight is over.”
Thank you for lighting the way, Charles Krauthammer. May you rest in eternal peace.
New York Post · by Michael Goodwin · June 10, 2018