Reporters’ Integrity: Does The Times Pass The Test?

James Wolfe, left, the former security director for the Senate Intelligence Committee, and New York Times reporter Ali Watkins.
James Wolfe, left, the former security director for the Senate Intelligence Committee, and New York Times reporter Ali Watkins.

The “All the news that’s fit to print” New York Times, one of America’s iconic newspapers, is caught in a web of its own making. It seems more and more that its once-high standards of journalistic behavior and ethics have been abandoned in favour of becoming a bullhorn for the left, motivated by profits. There was a time when the paper would fire any reporter who got romantically involved with a source. Such relationships would clearly be a case of conflict of interest. But apparently no longer. Earlier this month, a Times reporter’s intimate links to a top senate official, James Wolfe, came to light when he was indicted by federal investigators for lying to them about leaking classified information to several reporters, including the Times reporter, Ali Watkins. Watkins’ phone and email records were seized by the feds early this year. Several gaps in her story of her relationship with Wolfe point to not only her own lapses but also to the Times’ waning of ethical standards as it tries to shield her.

The Times says Watkins will not be fired. Watkins was hired by the Times last December. Watkins’ narrative around her relationship with Wolfe and her knowledge about the government’s seizing of her records is riddled with holes. The paper says Watkins told it about her relationship with Wolfe after she was hired but before starting work for the paper. She said her 3-year relationship had ended by then. She came to know in February from the Justice Department that her phone and email records had been tapped, but she waited until June to come out with the information. The Times says she withheld the information on the advice of her lawyer.

She has told the Times that Wolfe did not provide her with classified information during the course of their relationship. Yet, her past tweets show a keen interest in the themes of top-government leaks and “sleeping with your source.

In one tweet, Watkins noted how the Intelligence Committee is “SOOO frustrated in recent weeks by the constant dribble of leaks about who's testifying to them.” She then said the committee believes “Trumpster lawyers will leak info about upcoming appearances, blame the committee, then use as a pretext not to cooperate.”

In an April 2013 tweet, Watkins also tweeted about the fictional Netflix television show “House of Cards,” where a young reporter has an affair with an older member of Congress.

“I wanted to be Zoe Barnes...until episode 4,” she tweeted. “Sleeping with your source – especially a vindictive congressman? #badlifechoice #HouseofCards

New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin says of the Times, "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?"

The Times and other media organizations and thinktanks have shown an anti-Trump and anti-investigation stand in light of the seizing of Watkins’ records. The Freedom of the Press Foundation, for instance, has slammed the investigation and the Trump administration’s policy.

“All leak investigations — whether they directly target reporters or not — are a grave threat to press freedom,” the foundation said in a statement. “Whistle-blowers are the lifeblood of reporting, and the Trump administration is directly attacking journalists’ rights by bringing these cases.”

On June 10, the Times ran a story, “In Targeting Times Reporter, Justice Dept. Backs Trump’s Anti-Press Rhetoric.” The story says the seizing of Watkins’ records “raised concerns that the Trump administration was adopting a highly aggressive approach, continuing a crackdown that ramped up in the Obama years.”

The anti-Trump stand points the finger at the Trump administration, but it was a Democratic President who started a regime of crackdown on suspected information leakers and reporters before Trump. James Risen, a former Times reporter, was subpoenaed in a case during Obama's time. Risen experienced first-hand the Obama administration’s iron-hand stance on leaks.

Just before Obama left office, Risen wrote in the Times, “If Donald J. Trump decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the F.B.I. to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power: Barack Obama.”

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,” says Goodwin of the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s statement.

In the context of Wolfe’s indictment, Trump has said, “I'm a very big believer in freedom of the press but I'm also a believer that you cannot leak classified information.”

It’s time the Times looked at the Watkins case with fresh eyes – those of a standard-bearer that it once was in regard to ethics and conflict of interest.

Image credit: AP