Like any big news story, revelations that the FBI secured years of communications records from New York Times reporter Ali Watkins raise more than one issue. First, just why did investigators place public confidence in the media at risk? As the Erik Wemple Blog has written, that question concerns the very viability of an independent press, something that cannot be taken for granted.
There’s a second question, though: How seriously does the media take conflicts of interest?
In a June 7 indictment, the Justice Department charged James Wolfe, 57, longtime security director for the Senate Intelligence Committee, with lying to investigators about contacts with reporters. Per the Times, we know that one of those reporters was Watkins, who carried on a relationship of at least three years with Wolfe and with whom she had extensive electronic communications.
According to the indictment, Watkins’s “personal relationship” with Wolfe started in December 2013 and ended around December 2017. During this period, Watkins worked for McClatchy, HuffPost, BuzzFeed and Politico. When she jumped to the New York Times in December 2017, she apprised her bosses of the relationship, according to the Times. The paper also says that Watkins told supervisors at BuzzFeed and Politico, though in a statement Politico said that the disclosure didn’t occur “early on in her tenure.”
Per the indictment: 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, in a federal court document, conflicts with what Watkins has apparently told the New York Times. In its initial piece on the records seizure, the newspaper reported that Watkins claimed Wolfe “was not a source of classified information for Ms. Watkins during their relationship.” In a more recent piece, the New York Times claims Watkins said “Mr. Wolfe did not provide her with information during the course of their relationship” — a far broader denial, and one that strains the plausible: Could any couple build such a firewall?
Around the time that Watkins moved from Politico to the New York Times, she reported on Twitter that she was leaving behind the Senate Intelligence Committee beat:
At her new perch, she moved to cover adjacent areas:
The Times’s ethics manual has this to say about such entanglements: “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.” The guide continues, “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.”
Did Watkins move to the ATF-plus beat out of ethical considerations — or because the New York Times was already set on the Senate beat? “It was always the plan for Ali to cover the National Security Agencies like ATF that we didn’t typically cover. We had and have plenty of people covering the Intelligence Committee and Intel generally,” notes Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the newspaper. But the Times is nevertheless launching an inquiry that, according to the paper, will cover “the nature of her relationship with Mr. Wolfe, and what she disclosed about it to her prior employers.”
What about other outlets Watkins worked for? In her early days at Politico, she bore straight into Senate Intelligence Committee coverage. On May 10 of last year, for example, she wrote a story that started as follows:
The Senate Intelligence Committee has subpoenaed any Russia-related documents from former national security adviser Michael Flynn for its continuing probe into the Kremlin’s efforts to manipulate the 2016 election.
The legal order, announced by the panel’s bipartisan leaders Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark Warner (R-Va.), went out Wednesday after Flynn’s attorneys informed the panel they would not cooperate with the probe unless the embattled former general was granted immunity, a congressional source told POLITICO.
Another Politico story from that time, also under Watkins’s byline, noted that the Senate Intelligence Committee “is starting to examine potential ties between President Donald Trump’s associates and the Russian government, united in outrage after James Comey’s abrupt firing earlier this week.”
Such pieces came at the very beginning of Watkins’s short tenure at Politico, before she notified her bosses of her relationship with Wolfe. As The Post reported on Tuesday, Watkins was unsettled by a bizarre encounter with a Customs and Border Protection agent who was familiar with her relationship with Wolfe — an event that prompted her disclosure to her bosses at Politico, according to the Times.
After the disclosure, Politico “managed accordingly,” as a spokesman put it. Yet Watkins continued to churn out pieces at the heart of the committee’s activities. On Sept. 4, 2017, for instance, she co-wrote a story profiling the Russia probes on Capitol Hill, complete with this observation: “Of the three congressional panels, the one with the best record for bipartisan cooperation is the Senate Intelligence Committee.” In October, she wrote that Carter Page, a foreign policy aide to the Trump campaign, wouldn’t testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Ms. Watkins’ primary beat during her short time at POLITICO was not the Senate Intelligence Committee, which we had two reporters covering, but national security and law enforcement, including topics relating to China, international spy games, and Cuba,” notes a Politico statement.
A Watkins scoop from her time at BuzzFeed, which preceded her work at Politico, attracted the attention of federal investigators. On April 3, 2017, Watkins reported that a former Trump campaign adviser named Carter Page had met with a Russian spy in 2013. Look at the clips: Watkins’s revelation about Page was followed by major news organizations including the Associated Press, CNN and MSNBC, where host Rachel Maddow said, “BuzzFeed News reporter Ali Watkins has a sort of jaw-dropping scoop tonight about the Trump campaign. That story dropped tonight just in the last couple of hours. We’ve got Ali Watkins here tonight to talk about that story. We’ve got her exclusively. You are going to want to hear that.”
In addition to chatting with Maddow, Watkins was allegedly corresponding with Wolfe: “On or about that same date, both before and after the online news article was published, WOLFE and [Watkins] exchanged approximately 124 electronic communications,” reads the indictment, which doesn’t charge Wolfe with leaking, merely with making false statements about his contacts. Accordingly, the indictment does not make clear what, if any, information Wolfe may have passed along to Watkins.
What is clear is that Watkins persisted in covering the Senate Intelligence Committee while she carried on a personal relationship with its director of security. Her archive from BuzzFeed spills over with such material. Here’s a piece comparing the respective Russia investigations of the House and Senate intelligence committees, which concludes with this quote: “Gotta treat both sides the same, even if [it is] a House of Fools.” Here’s a piece on how Page offered to assist the Senate Intelligence Committee. Here’s a piece on the aftermath of the revelation that Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr’s quest to push reporters off the Trump-Russia story. There is much more, too.
So why was Watkins allowed to pursue those stories at BuzzFeed? “What we ask of our reporters is that they be transparent and open with editors about any potential conflicts with sources — whether real or perceived,” wrote BuzzFeed News spokesman Matt Mittenthal. “What they ask of us in return is our confidence in protecting those sources, which we don’t intend to violate here simply to further the Justice Department’s disgusting smear campaign against a reporter.” In an interview that aired Sunday on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” Editor in Chief Ben Smith protested that questions about Watkins’s ethical conduct “is a conversation the Department of Justice wants us to be having” — which is to say that the focus should be not on Watkins’s personal life, but on an administration that went after the records of a journalist who was pursuing a story unflattering to the president of the United States.
“They have launched a million smears on social media,” said Smith, who also noted that no one has challenged a “word or a comma” of the Page story. “My social media is just full of like disgusting smears of a reporter right now, rather than a conversation about what they were doing, what impelled them to use this kind of last-resort tool of covertly spying on journalists,” he said.
Social media is all about smears. Smith’s focus on bottom-feeders, however, distracts from legitimate questions about why Watkins was allowed to report on Wolfe’s workplace. It is possible to decry federal intrusions while conceding there may be some housekeeping in order. That appears to be the approach of McClatchy. Tim Grieve, McClatchy’s vice president of news, says that it’s “obviously deeply troubling whenever the government is seizing records of a reporter.” That said, the organization is “starting to look at” whether it needs to address any ethical issues relating to Watkins’s time at the company, which stretched from May 2013 to October 2014 — before Grieve himself arrived at McClatchy.
Some considerations for McClatchy: The company, says Grieve, wasn’t “aware” of the Watkins-Wolfe relationship; nor has Grieve heard any complaints about her coverage from this period. In fact, Watkins’s coverage of the Senate Intelligence Committee helped the organization publish coverage that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. So what to do? Quiz Watkins about her sources years after she left the company? Issue disclosures that one of its reporters might have had a relationship with a source? Freshen up those yellowing newsroom standards?
There’s not a top editor in Washington who walks into work eager to address romantic conflicts of interest among young reporters. It’s a messy proposition, as 20-somethings in the nation’s capital hook up, shack up and, often, split up. At what point do you disclose such nonmarital relationships? Or scramble beats to avoid a conflict? The answer: Much sooner than media organizations acted in the case of Watkins.
Ryan Grim, who supervised Watkins as Washington bureau chief at HuffPost, tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “I’m for allowing adults to make their own decisions. Yeah, she disclosed it, and we managed it. What Trump is trying to do to her and to journalism is shameful, and I’m not going to dignify it by going any further into it than that.” Watkins did extensive work at HuffPost on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report during her relationship with Wolfe. Some of the coverage featured co-bylines with Watkins and her boss Grim.
Which is to say: Adults, unfortunately, often make bad decisions. And if we are to believe the indictment, Watkins reported on the workplace of her partner for years, with often minimal interference from editors. Although her work from that period hasn’t been punctured, we may never know what stories she ignored or underplayed because of her personal loyalties. The New York Times has the right idea here: This doesn’t look good; ask many questions.