1909 April 17: The Society of Professional Journalists is established by DePauw University students as the fraternity “Sigma Delta Chi,” with the mission of encouraging high standards and ethical behavior in the practice of journalism.
1912: Sigma Delta Chi holds its first national convention and proclaims the fraternity’s motto as “Talent, Truth and Energy.”
1916: Sigma Delta Chi changes from an honorary to a professional fraternity.
1922 October: American Society of News Editors is founded in Chicago as an “ethical organization” of American newspaper editors devoted to maintaining the highest standards of quality. The society quickly develops a code of ethical standards of professional conduct for the profession.
1926: Sigma Delta Chi borrows and adopts the American Society of News Editors’ code of ethics.
1973: Sigma Delta Chi renames itself as the Society of Professional Journalists and adopts its own code of ethics. The code has since been revised four times.
2013 June: Ali Watkins begins working for McClatchy Newspapers.
2013 Indeterminate: Watkins begins romantic affair with Senate Intelligence Committee head of security James A. Wolfe.
2014: Watkins works as part of team of three reporters who produce a series of stories about the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of the CIA and its secret detention and enhanced interrogation program. Much of the reporting covers classified material.
2014 October: Watkins takes job as national security reporter at the Huffington Post.
2015 Indeterminate: Watkins and her former team at McClatchy named as Pulitzer Prize Finalist in National Reporting for “demonstrating initiative and perseverance in overcoming government efforts to hide the details.”
2015 November: Watkins joins BuzzFeed as national security reporter.
2017 April 3: Watkins breaks story about then-future Trump campaign aide Carter Page meeting with Russian operatives in 2013. This story reportedly catches the attention of federal investigators who realize that some classified details could only have come from the Senate Intelligence Committee.
2017 May: Watkins joins Politico as a national security reporter.
2017 August: Attorney General Jeff Sessions announces that the Justice Department is pursuing three times as many leak investigations as were open at the end of the Obama Administration, which had opened more lead investigations than all previous administrations combined.
2017 September: Watkins releases a series of Tweets defending the Senate Intelligence Committee and claiming that the White House was the source of any leaks as a ploy to not cooperate with the committee. Some analysts believe this was a ploy by Watkins to deflect any federal investigator attention away from her and her relationship with Wolfe.
2017 December: Wolfe allegedly lies to FBI investigators about his contacts with Watkins and two other reporters.
2017 December: Watkins is hired by The New York Times as a national security reporter. Times editors have since reported that upon being hired, Watkins informed them of her relationship with Wolfe, stated that the relationship was over, and claimed that Wolfe never gave her classified information.
2018 February: FBI informs Watkins that they have seized her email and cellphone data as part of an investigation into government leaks. Watkins reportedly decides not to inform her new employers at The New York Times about the seizure on the advice of her attorney.
2018 May: Wolfe resigns from his long-held position on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
2018 June 7: Wolfe is indicted and arrested for making false statements to FBI investigators about his contacts with Watkins and two other reporters.
This is a story of indeterminate truths. Only James A. Wolfe and Ali Watkins know precisely what Senate Intelligence Committee secrets and classified information may have passed between the two during their three-year relationship. Of course, the FBI may have an inkling of what might have passed based upon what may be contained in the tens of thousands of electronic communications seized from Ms. Watkins. Thus, the truth may ultimately emerge.
This is also a story about government intrusion into press freedoms. To what extent can the government monitor or seize journalists’ communications in their pursuit of leak investigations? The press is expressing both concern and outrage about this case, and rightfully questioning whether the Trump Administration is overstepping its bounds. However, disclosures about certain national security information fall under the purview of the Espionage Act and several other federal laws. Given Mr. Wolfe’s role as overseer of all such information for the Senate Intelligence Committee, should any have been purposely passed to Ms. Watkins, the government would be within its rights to seize any such electronic evidence.
This is also a story of compromised ethics in journalism. Wholly compromised on purpose by Ms. Watkins and the editors at BuzzFeed, and, by extension, The New York Times and possibly Politico and The Huffington Post. None of them are reporting on this story, however; instead deflecting the idea by focusing on the alleged government intrusion into press freedoms. In this author’s opinion, such failure to examine the ethics of this case represents a continuation of the unethical behavior.
Whether Ms. Watkins received secret or classified information from Mr. Wolfe or not is irrelevant in the scheme of journalistic ethics. Her relationship with Mr. Wolfe represented a distinct conflict of interest which should have precluded her from reporting on anything related to the Senate Intelligence Committee, or, at the very least, required such disclosure in the context of her reporting. BuzzFeed editors, who knew about the relationship, are equally guilty of the ethical breach. Politico editors may be able to save some face, as they claim they restricted her reporting on committee matters once they learned of the relationship.
The New York Times compromised their ethical standards by hiring Ms. Watkins despite knowing about her unethical journalistic practices. They’ve further compromised themselves by not sanctioning Ms. Watkins unethical failure to inform the editors that the FBI had seized her communications. Such compromised ethical standards will remain until they give Ms. Watkins the boot. Thus far, the Times seems reluctant to do so, apparently wanting to use the unethical journalist as a foil against the Trump Administration’s intrusion into press freedoms.
Ten articles and counting from The New York Times on the subject and not one mention of the word “ethics,” other than to mention it in passing concerning DOJ guidelines for handling investigations of reporters. This is a glaring omission when unethical behavior is how this whole story emerged.
As noted by the New York Post’s Michael Goodwin, “Pure hatred of [Trump] in newsrooms across America is blinding editors and reporters to basic fairness and glaring conflicts of interest. Public trust in the media is at an all-time low, and this case illustrates a seedy link between the Washington press corps and the Washington swamp.”
Helping educate our members to understand the bigger picture.
Ethics as an amorphous subject that is hard to pin down due to its subjective nature. While some people might find “sleeping one’s way to the top” to be ethically repugnant, others might be fine with it. Thus, many organizations define and state their ethics in what is usually referred to as a code of ethics.
To learn more about ethics in journalism click here.
Story inspired by: An article in the New York Post describing how Ms. Watkins “broke the biggest rule in journalism.”
Michael Goodwin, New York Post, “New York Times reporter broke the biggest rule in journalism,” 2018, June 6
Point: “We’re deeply troubled by what looks like a case of law enforcement interfering with a reporter’s constitutional right to gather information about her own government.” —BuzzFeed Editor in Chief Ben Smith.
Shane Harris & Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post, “Ex-Senate staffer faces charges in leak investigation,” 2018, June 8
CounterPoint: “The reaction from the legacy media has been nearly unanimous in their defense of Watkins, glossing over the patently unprofessional nature of the romantic relationship and the lack of ethics involved on the part of both Wolfe and Watkins.” —Inquisitr reporter Nicholas Morine.
Nicholas Morine, Inquisitr, “New York Times Reporter Ali Watkins Allegedly Leaked Data From Indicted Former Senate Intelligence Aide Wolfe,” 2018, 10 June