Former Senate Intelligence Committee security director James Wolfe listens as his attorney makes a statement to members of the media outside the U.S. District Courthouse on June 19. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Media critic

The New York Times on Sunday published a deep look at the work history of one of its own. “How an Affair Between a Reporter and a Security Aide Has Rattled Washington Media,” reads the headline on a article by Michael M. Grynbaum, Scott Shane and Emily Flitter, with assistance from five other New York Times staffers. The central character in the piece is Ali Watkins, who covers a federal law-enforcement beat for the Times.

Why such a generous deployment of reporters? Because on June 7, the Justice Department indicted James Wolfe, longtime director of security at the Senate Intelligence Committee, for allegedly making false statements about his contacts with reporters. One of those reporters was the now-26-year-old Watkins, who worked for a number of news organizations before arriving at the Times: McClatchy, HuffPost, BuzzFeed and Politico, career stops where she filed stories bearing directly on the Senate Intelligence Committee. According to the indictment, Watkins carried on a four-year relationship with Wolfe, though the Times reports that it lasted three years.

The FBI secured Watkins’s phone and email records as part of its investigation — a worrying intrusion with echoes of the much-criticized moves of the Obama Justice Department vis-a-vis the Associated Press and Fox News. Whereas those cases prompted a weeks-long pile-on of articles, op-eds and TV segments loathing the Obama administration’s clear overreach, the seizure of Watkins’s records prompted a momentary plume of condemnations — in part because the conveyor belt of Trump controversies has stayed in motion.

“I think it’s an acceptance and … it makes me uncomfortable,” said Dean Baquet in an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog less than a week after the indictment. “We understand and are not surprised that the government is rummaging around reporters’ emails. It’s too bad that we’re not surprised.”

It’s too bad, also, that a national security reporter was allowed to report on the workplace of her partner during her time at various news organizations, in what amounts to a sustained conflict of interest. Herewith, some questions about the episode.

1) Did Wolfe provide any information to Watkins?

In its first story on the Watkins situation, the Times reported that Watkins claimed Wolfe wasn’t a source of “classified information” during their relationship — an assertion that left room for the possibility that he did pass along less-sensitive information. A subsequent story closed that door, reporting that Wolfe “did not provide her with information during the course of their relationship.”

Now in its Sunday piece, the Times reported that the relationship was a “complicated” matter in this respect: “She would make a mental note of tidbits he mentioned offhand, or gossip with him about Capitol Hill, or throw out a fact and gauge his reply,” said the story. Sounds like a source.

The indictment quotes a text message sent by Wolfe to Watkins in December 2017, presumably after their relationship had ended: “I’ve watched your career take off even before you ever had a career in journalism . . . 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 . . . I always enjoyed the way that you would pursue a story, like nobody else was doing in my hallway. I felt like I was part of your excitement and was always very supportive of your career and the tenacity that you exhibited to chase down a good story.”

2) Did Wolfe leverage his position for romance?

The Times reports the 50-something Wolfe pursued Watkins when she was a 22-year-old intern with McClatchy. A pearl bracelet was part of the offensive. After their relationship waned in the fall of 2017, Wolfe apparently used his position with the Senate Intelligence Committee to broker other line-crossing ventures:

About the same time, Mr. Wolfe, too, appeared to be moving on. He gave another young female reporter covering the Intelligence Committee some valuable information, according to a person with direct knowledge of the interaction. Then he sent her a series of personal nighttime texts, including one at 10 p.m. asking her what she was up to. She deflected his inquiries and never got another tip from him, the person said.

3) Why did news outlets allow Watkins to report on the Senate Intelligence Committee, even though she had an intimate relationship with a key staffer?

Where were the editors? For decades, the journalism industry provided an un-codified deal to young journalists: You bring the energy and the brains; we’ll provide the guidance and the support. What happened to the guidance and the support?

Here, the answer varies by outlet. Friends of Watkins told the Times that the couple didn’t start dating until after she left McClatchy in the fall of 2014, though she accepted the bracelet with the say-so of a McClatchy editor, according to the Times.

At HuffPost, then-Washington Bureau Chief Ryan Grim told 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.” That said, Watkins covered the Senate Intelligence Committee during her HuffPost tenure, sometimes on articles co-bylined with Grim.

At BuzzFeed, Watkins continued with her relationship and with her reporting on the Senate Intelligence Committee. She broke a big story in April 2017 about a contact between former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page and a Russian spy in 2013. “That was an important and good story, so you sort of have to balance — if there was a judgment lapse on her part: Well, what was the good? What was on the other side of the scale? That should be factored in and whatever final judgment is reached about her future,” says Jill Abramson, who preceded Baquet as executive editor of the Times.

At Politico, Watkins provided a vague disclosure to a top editor at the time of her hiring, followed by a more detailed one after a bizarre encounter with an agent of Customs and Border Protection who knew about her relationship in disturbing detail. She covered the Senate Intelligence Committee over the course of her months-long time at Politico, though the news organization says that it “managed accordingly” after it was informed of the connection.

When Watkins moved to the Times, she also moved beats to cover federal law-enforcement agencies such as the Secret Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Translation: HuffPost, BuzzFeed and Politico feasted on Watkins’s news-breaking stories even as she dated a man right at the center of her beat. Scoops? Yes! Ethics? Maybe later.

4.) Why is the Times doing all this investigating?

Not only did the Times publish its thorough Sunday story, it has also launched an internal inquiry into her work history and “what influence the relationship may have had on her reporting.” Considering that Watkins is now an employee of the Times, that inquiry makes some sense. However, the Times doesn’t bear the same ethical considerations as Watkins’s previous employers because she hasn’t covered the Senate Intelligence Committee during her tenure at the newspaper.

So what sort of inquiries have those other outlets launched into their handling of Watkins?

A PR rep for the parent company of HuffPost responded, “Oath generally does not comment on internal matters regarding current or prior employees.”

A BuzzFeed rep responded by citing a news-breaking Watkins story mentioned in the indictment: “We’re not going to comment on personnel matters or private conversations between a reporter and her editors. However, we continue to be amazed that the Justice Department, and now the press, is using an airtight story — about a Trump adviser’s contacts with Russian spies — to justify a gross intrusion on a reporter’s communications and private life. BuzzFeed News will continue to report on the constitutional and privacy matters in this case, including the government’s highly unusual behavior.”

A Politico rep told the Erik Wemple Blog, “POLITICO is in the process of reviewing Ms. Watkins’ work history during her time with the publication, and evaluating whether to make changes to our practices, policies, or procedures.”

5) What’s next?

We’re glad we’re not Charlotte Behrendt and Andrew Gutterman, the New York Times officials who are looking at Watkins’s work history. They will have to determine just how much Watkins disclosed to her previous employers, how culpable were her previous editors in allowing her to cover her romantic interest and the full story as to why Watkins didn’t apprise her editors at the Times when she found out in February that her records had been seized. How to assess Watkins’s claim that Wolfe, over a three-year relationship with fabulous access to newsworthy information, didn’t provide information to her?

Further: What if Behrendt and Gutterman find some evidence that Watkins didn’t play it as straight as they might have liked with her previous employers? How would such transgressions stack up against those of Glenn Thrush, the former White House reporter who survived a Behrendt investigation into his treatment of women at Politico?

In the meantime, “I hate that this has revived the canard which certainly was pervasive at the beginning of my career as an investigative reporter at the Wall Street Journal,” says Abramson. “Oh, these women reporters all sleep with their sources to get their stories.”