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New York Times Reporter Investigated for Relationship With Senate Aide

Reporter Ali Watkins (Screenshot / YouTube).

This month, the U.S. Department of Justice revealed it seized phone and email records from New York Times national security reporter Ali Watkins, after former Senate Intelligence Committee aide James Wolfe was charged with lying about his contacts with her and three other journalists. Now the rising star reporter is the subject of a Times investigation, after news broke of her three-year romantic relationship with Wolfe, who was also a source for her while she reported on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The relationship ended four months before Watkins started working for the Times. Nonetheless, the revelation raises tough questions about her previous reporting for big-name outlets, the ethics of reporter-source romantic relationships, the limits of access journalism and the importance of scoops, especially in a time of economic uncertainty for the news industry.

Initially, the situation seemed like a straightforward case of government overreach toward the press. As the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) writes, “Press freedom groups quickly decried the government’s actions, arguing that they ‘represent a fundamental threat to press freedom,’ in the words of the Committee to Protect Journalists.”

CJR maintains that “The focus on Watkins’ romantic entanglements has muddied the waters on what should be a clear case of government overreach” and cites her former employers’ reactions to the news as evidence.

Ryan Grim, now at The Intercept and formerly Watkins’ editor at The Huffington Post, told the Times, “What I see is the Trump administration seizing a reporter’s records and tricking the press into writing about her sex life. It’s appalling what the Trump administration is doing and I don’t think you should enable it.”

Jack Shafer of Politico, another former employer of Watson, echoed Grim, saying that while he believes reporters shouldn’t be in romantic relationships with sources, “based on what we know about her [Watkins’] case, she deserves a second chance. Given all the male reporters over the years who’ve escaped punishment for their sins of the flesh, it’s only fair.”

Still, because of the sensitivity of the information and the fact that Watkins may have been less than forthcoming about a potentially insurmountable conflict of interest, the news organization is “currently examining [Watkins’] work history and what influence the relationship may have had on her reporting,” according to Sunday’s report in The New York Times by Michael M. Grynbaum, Scott Shane and Emily Flitter.

Watkins, at 26, had already worked as a reporter for multiple national publications, including The Huffington Post, Politico, Buzzfeed and McClatchy, before landing at The New York Times. According to the Times, her relationship with Wolfe was a shock to many of her fellow journalists and played out “in the insular world of Washington, where young, ambitious journalists compete for scoops while navigating relationships with powerful, often older, sources.”

A staff writer position is an enviable one for any budding journalist, many of whom cobble together freelance and contract assignments to make ends meet as staff jobs disappear.

Watkins disclosed her relationship to her employers, but often, the Times says, with “varying degrees of detail—sometimes citing Mr. Wolfe’s name and position, and sometimes not—while asserting that she had not used him as a source during their relationship.”

The Times article says it was a “relationship with rules,” and Watkins told Wolfe “You are not my source” and often stopped him if he discussed government work with her.

However, Wolfe’s federal indictment suggests otherwise. As Erik Wemple writes in The Washington Post, “In December 2017, Wolfe sent a message to Watkins—identified in the document as “REPORTER #2”—saying, ‘I always tried to give you as much information that I could and to do the right thing with it so you could get that scoop before anyone else.’ ”

That message, Wemple continues, conflicts with what Watkins told The New York Times, that Wolfe never gave her classified information.

The Times, Wemple says, doesn’t forbid reporters to date sources, but, as stated in the employee handbook, requires employees to disclose relationships to “the standards editor, the associate managing editor for news administration or the deputy editorial page editor.”

“In some cases,” the handbook continues, “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.”

Watkins’ focus on the Senate Intelligence Committee, as well as the amount and specificity of the information in her stories, became a concern to federal agencies.

The first of her scoops to catch the Department of Justice’s attention was a Huffington Post report that Trump campaign official Carter Page had met with a Russian spy in 2013. Watkins also reported the Senate Intelligence Committee subpoenaed Russia-related documents from former national security adviser Michael Flynn, in its work investigating former FBI Director James Comey’s firing, among other national security topics.

After the Page report, Watkins was invited on “The Rachel Maddow Show” to discuss what Maddow called a “jaw-dropping story.”

After breaking up with Wolfe, and while still covering the Senate Intelligence Committee at Politico, Watkins began dating another committee staff member. As the Times reports, “She told others that she had informed a Politico editor who did not object. But Mr. Dayspring, the Politico spokesman, said, ‘Politico editors were not made aware of this relationship.’ ”

Meanwhile, Watkins is on vacation. The Times declined to comment to its own reporters on any developments in the investigation.

Company spokeswoman Eileen Murphy, however, doubled down on the importance of press freedom: “The most important issue here remains the seizure of a journalist’s personal communications, which we condemn and believe all Americans should be deeply concerned about.”

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