Gina Chon, who had covered Iraq for the Journal, quit under pressure after the disclosure of her relationship with Brett McGurk while both lived in Baghdad in 2008. McGurk, who was on the National Security Council staff during the Bush administration, is President Obama’s nominee to be ambassador to Iraq.
McGurk and Chon apparently were married to others at the time that they struck up a relationship; they obtained divorces and recently married.
Chon may be the highest-profile journalist to lose her job over an intimate relationship with a source, but she’s not the first. Although it rarely captures headlines, reporters “get involved with sources fairly often,” said Kelly McBride, an ethics specialist for the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalism education organization.
McBride said she receives “five to 10” calls from news organizations every year seeking advice on how to deal with journalists who are having relationships with people they’re covering.
The situations have ranged from a newspaper political reporter involved with a county chairman to a health reporter who was having a relationship with the public-relations executive of a local hospital. “It happens all the time, because people fall in love,” McBride said.
Chon’s mistake appears to have been that she hid her relationship with McGurk from her bosses at the Journal.
The newspaper said in a statement Tuesday that Chon “agreed to resign” after she “entered into a personal relationship with Mr. McGurk, which she failed to disclose to her editor.” It said it found no evidence that her work was negatively affected by her affair.
The paper declined to say what Chon may have disclosed to McGurk. It’s also not clear that McGurk disclosed any sensitive information to Chon.
News organizations typically discourage personal relationships with sources and will usually reassign journalists who are romantically involved with someone they cover.
The idea is to avoid relationships that could compromise a reporter’s judgment or give the appearance of playing favorites, said John K. Hartman, a professor of journalism at Central Michigan University. “Serious journalists know that it is imperative to avoid any conflict of interest and any situation that might taint their reporting perspective,” he said. Sometimes, however, reporters “can take cozying up to sources too far.”
Similarly, journalists aren’t supposed to disclose unpublished stories, lest it compromise the gathering of information.
Chon’s relationship with McGurk is reminiscent of the headlines that surrounded the disclosure in 2007 of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s affair with Mirthala Salinas, a reporter and anchor for a local Telemundo affiliate. The TV station said at the time that it had reassigned Salinas and that she had no role in covering the mayor.
The relationship between Chon and McGurk came to light after the disclosure of a series of e-mails they sent to each other while working in Baghdad in 2008; the e-mails were posted anonymously on several Web sites, including Flickr and Cryptome. The couple joked in the e-mails about trading sexual favors in exchange for access and information. At the time, McGurk was the lead U.S. negotiator on security agreements with Iraq.
The disclosure has intensified doubts about McGurk’s nomination for ambassador among some Republican members of the Senate, but the Obama administration has stood by him.