Monday, June 25, 2018


Ali Watkins. Photo:Twitter
The strange case of Ali Watkins got a little stranger today as The New York Times, her employer of just six months, published a lengthy report on her apparent conflict of interest with a government official. And her confusing lack of disclosure to some bosses on some of the details.

The triple bylined piece, which also cites work from five more staffers, reads like some kind of  bad D.C. soap opera with anonymous sources, personal details and even cutesy descriptions of Watkins' home life: "In recent years she has zipped around Washington on a motorcycle, taken boxing lessons, and doted on her Husky, Kellan, whom she outfitted with a Putin chew toy."

To be fair, it is also an example of the Times seeking to tell the entire, open story of an embarrassing internal issue, very similar to the Jayson Blair scandal of 2003, in which a reporter was fired for a long string of fabricated stories, made-up facts and outright lies about attending news events. In that case, a four-page report on Mother's Day 2003 left no lie, deception or embarrassment untold.

Ali Watkins is no Jayson Blair, far from it. But feeling the need to expose all of the details about her issue mirrors the paper's reaction to Blair's sins, which resulted in the firing of two top editors that year. It also led to the creation of the paper's public editor position, an independent ombudsman job that lasted until last year when the Times cut the position that was the last real independent review of the paper's work.

Boy, could they use a public editor now.

For those not in the know, Watkins, a 26-year-old Times reporter, joined the paper in December 2017 after successful reporting positions at McClatchy, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post and Politico. She earned a reputation as a dogged reporter who dug out scoops on the high-level intelligence beat and was part of the team that became a finalist for a 2015 Pulitzer Prize.

But during much of that time, she was also involved in a romantic relationship with James Wolfe, a senior aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee, the very group that her Pulitzer-worthy work was covering. The Pulitzer board described the nominated series as "timely coverage of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on CIA torture, demonstrating initiative and perseverance in overcoming government efforts to hide the details."

Today's Times report, which begins on Page One and fills an entire inside page, says Watkins has long claimed that Wolfe was never a source on her reporting, but also reveals she did not tell all of her editors who he was when disclosing that she was involved in a relationship with a committee official.

"People at BuzzFeed say they had a general sense of her personal life," The Times wrote. "During a job interview, Ms. Watkins told Miriam Elder, an editor, that she was dating a man who did intelligence work on Capitol Hill. She said he was not a source, but did not volunteer Mr. Wolfe’s name or title, and the discussion went no further. (Ms. Elder declined to comment, but did not dispute the account.)." 

It later added, "Ms. Watkins made another move in May 2017, to Politico, while she and Mr. Wolfe were still together. She has told friends that when she was hired, she informed a Politico editor, Paul Volpe, that she was dating a man in the intelligence community, though she again did not volunteer Mr. Wolfe’s name or his position. A spokesman for Politico, Brad Dayspring, said only that she “did not disclose the personal nature of her relationship early on in her tenure.”

Watkins' and Wolfe's romance first became public after Wolfe was arrested June 7 for allegedly lying to investigators about his contacts with Watkins and three other journalists, according to the Times. In a bizarre twist that prompted serious backlash among journalists, Watkins' phone and email records were seized, a serious violation of journalistic rights.

But that story also forced the Times and Watkins to reveal her relationship, which today's article further expanded upon, detailing when the two first met in 2013, first kissed in 2014, and later broke up in late 2017. Watkins has not commented and is reportedly on a pre-planned vacation. The Times indicates in the story that it is conducting an internal review of her work and actions.

The Times also revealed today that Watkins had been approached by two FBI agents asking about Wolfe just days before she began working at the paper in Decmber, a fact she told editors about at the time, although it is unclear if she revealed the entire Wolfe relationship then. The paper also disclosed that, "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."

The Times said Watkins was advised by her lawyer not to disclose the letter to her employers. Asked about that decision, Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy said in today's paper that editors “obviously would have preferred to know.”

And editors perhaps would have preferred that such a relationship did not exist at all. To make clear, it appears Watkins' romance with Wolfe had ended before she joined the Times, where she has not reported on stories related to him or the Senate Intelligence Committee. 

But her past actions with a potential conflict of interest relationship clearly do raise concerns. The Times' own Ethical Journalism handbook, which was not even mentioned in today's report, states:

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 to the standards editor, the associate managing editor for news administration or the deputy editorial page editor. In some cases, no further action may be needed. But in other instances staff members may have to recuse themselves from certain coverage. And in still other cases, assignments may have to be modified or beats changed. In a few instances, a staff member may have to move to a different department — from business and financial news, say, to the culture desk—to avoid the appearance of conflict.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, seen by many as the bible for such reporting rules, says simply, "Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived; Disclose unavoidable conflicts." 

Watkins has said Wolfe was not a source on her reporting, but wouldn't her relationship with him be at least a perceived conflict of interest? 

As for the Times, cutting its public editor post has appeared to be a potential mistake, not only with the Watkins story, but a few months ago when reporter Glenn Thrush was suspended and later reassigned after allegations of mistreatment of women arose. He was kept on the job, but not until Times editors went through their own investigations and decided to allow him to remain after a two-month suspension.

The 2018 Showtimes series "The Fourth Estate," which chronicled the paper's first year covering Donald Trump's presidency, included a segment devoted to the Thrush incident. Executive Editor Dean Baquet said during a conference call with editors about Thrush, "I think that kind of behavior has got to end." When someone on the call asked why Thrush would not then be fired, Baquet answered, "What I said in the statement is that we're in a moment where there is a huge debate about how to deal with this stuff. But that in my view these things have to be taken as individuals, and individual circumstances. That there can't be blanket rules or blanket punishments."

It would have been interesting to see what part a public editor would have played in that situation, or in the ongoing Watkins debates and reviews at the paper today.

A public editor could clear a lot of the air on this and other such internal issues, and without requiring so many staff members to take time away from covering other important news. It also would remove an obvious conflict of interest the Times faces when having its reporters report on itself.

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