Readers will be forgiven if they don’t recognize the name Ali Watkins, but journalists will not. Ms. Watkins, a 26-year-old reporter with The New York Times, is currently descending into an ever-expanding sinkhole that threatens not just her reputation but the reputation of the journalism profession itself.
Astonishingly, but not surprisingly, Ms. Watkins’ journalistic brethren, her current employer and a number of “professional associations,” including the Committee to Protect Journalists, have come to her defense, calling the response to her irresponsible behavior, “a fundamental threat to press freedom.”
Nonsense. The Watkins “affair” (and we use that word with all of its prurient semantic implications) is so sordid and antithetical to journalistic principles that every “real journalist” should be condemning her behavior.
Here’s what happened in the Watkins case:
Ms. Watkins, a Temple University student, in 2013 took on an internship with the McClatchy group of newspapers (one of the largest in America), and in Washington began reporting on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which oversees much of the most-sensitive information in the United States government.
Ms. Watkins quickly distinguished herself with a series of intelligence “scoops” that had Washington, and the media community abuzz.
Her follow-on career was meteoric. She moved from Politico (a left-leaning influential website) to BuzzFeed to the Huffington Post and, last December, to her current employer, The New York Times. (As an aside, it is almost unheard of for a 20-something reporter to get a job at The Times. For context, when the publisher of the Compass was working at The Washington Post many years ago, the newspaper was receiving approximately 10,000 applications per year for newsroom positions. When an opening did arise, the paper had the resources to poach Pulitzer Prize winners from its competitors, not hire kids just out of college.)
In any event, on June 7, Ms. Watkins’ career – and reputation – came crashing down. The FBI arrested former Senate Intelligence Committee security director James Wolfe, 57, for (in part) denying (lying) that he knew Ms. Watkins and, presumably by extension, was leaking to her confidential and/or classified information.
When FBI agents confronted Mr. Wolfe with photos of him and Ms. Watkins together, he admitted they were having an intimate personal relationship. He was immediately taken into custody.
As part of the FBI investigation, the Bureau had retrieved thousands of emails and text messages between Ms. Watkins and Mr. Wolfe, revealing that their relationship had been ongoing for three years.
Many in the media are arguing that the FBI should not have access to reporters’ emails or texts, even if national security is at risk.
Again, nonsense. In America (and most countries) reporters have no special protections beyond those of ordinary citizens when it comes to withholding information from federal, state or local investigators. And they shouldn’t.
At the Compass, the publisher invokes what he calls the “MyPillow.com rule”: You don’t write about anyone with whom you are sharing a pillow.
Ironically, many years ago at The New York Times, legendary editor Abe Rosenthal had hired a female reporter from Philadelphia. Soon after, it came out publicly that she had had a secret affair with a politician she was writing about and had accepted expensive gifts from him. Mr. Rosenthal called the reporter into his office, asked her if it were true and she admitted it was. He told her to clean out her desk. She would never work for the paper again.
The Times newsroom rebelled (especially the female reporters and editors). They claimed Mr. Rosenthal had been “overly tough,” in part because the reporter was a woman.
Mr. Rosenthal assembled the newsroom staff and told them, in effect, “I don’t care what you do in your private lives. In fact, I don’t care if you f*@k elephants, but if you do, you’re not going to cover the circus for The New York Times.”
The defense by journalists of Ms. Watkins is not journalism; it’s tribalism.
Ms. Watkins needs to be fired immediately from the newspaper formerly helmed by Mr. Rosenthal, whose legacy is carried on by its current executive editor, Dean Baquet.