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Journalism Ethics in the Spotlight

June 15, 2018 388 9 1 Comment


M.J. Moye

  • A fast-rising print media star has emerged as a central figure in the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation into government leaks after it was revealed last week that years’ worth of the reporter’s telephone and email records had been seized by the FBI back in February.


  • The New York Times, Buzzfeed, and other media outlets are rightfully concerned about government seizure of a journalist’s communications, but at the same time, many are using it as a pretext to deflect closer examination of the journalist’s apparently compromised ethics.


  • In short, all indications suggest that current New York Times Washington-based reporter Ali Watkins was a long-time mistress of former Senate Intelligence Committee Security Director James A. Wolfe. During their three-year relationship, Mr. Wolfe allegedly served as a key news source for Ms. Watkins, providing her with privileged (and perhaps “classified”) information that allowed her to write breaking news stories starting when she was a senior studying journalism at Temple University—Stories so groundbreaking that she was nominated as finalist for the Pulitzer Prize at the age of 20.


  • Among groundbreaking stories with a clear and distinct connection to Senate Intelligence Committee secrets were ones relating to the CIA’s secret detention and interrogation program, infighting between the CIA and the committee, and the committee’s investigation into a secret 2013 meeting between then-future Trump campaign advisor Carter Page and Russian operatives. That latter story, released in 2017, helped further foment the still unproven allegations that the Trump Campaign colluded with Russia.


  • Ms. Watkins began her journalism career with McClatchy Newspapers as a national security and regional politics reporter in 2013 while still studying journalism at Temple University. After one and a half years with McClatchy, Ms. Watkins joined the Huffington Post, and then BuzzFeed, where she broke the Carter Page story. She was then hired by Politico in May 2017, before joining The New York Times in late 2017.


  • It is unclear whether editors at McClatchy and the Huffington Post knew of Ms. Watkins’ close relationship with Mr. Wolfe, but the editors at Politico and BuzzFeed have been outed as being aware of the relationship, and, presumably, the clear conflict of interest this represented. The New York Times reports that Ms. Watkins disclosed her relationship with Mr. Wolfe prior to her hiring by the newspaper, but says Ms. Watkins denied that he had been the source for all of her groundbreaking Intelligence Committee reporting.


  • Mr. Wolfe, who was arrested by the FBI last week for lying to investigators during their investigation into the leakage of classified material from the committee to the press, also denies feeding Ms. Watkins Intelligence Committee information, classified or not. Despite the denials from both, all indications suggest otherwise and point to a close link between the love affair and Ms. Watkin’s breaking news coverage of various Intelligence Committee secrets. Among alleged correspondence between the two included in the DOJ’s indictment of Mr. Wolfe was a message stating in part: “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 (sic) that I could and to do the right thing with it so you could get that scoop before anyone else.” Additionally, the timing of Ms. Watkin’s scoops seems to coincide with extensive communication—more than 80 text messages, emails, and phone calls the day before the Carter Page scoop—between the two.


  • With the FBI in possession of tens of thousands of electronic communications between the former lovers, the truth of the matter will likely emerge. Mr. Wolfe faces additional legal jeopardy concerning the handling of classified information. While Ms. Watkins is not expected to face any legal jeopardy for her specific reporting on any leaked classified information, it is unclear whether she faces such for lying to federal investigators.


  • For its part, many in the news media are ignoring the ethical dimensions of Ms. Watkins’ reporting by focusing on the government’s seizure of a journalist’s private communications. The DOJ’s actions do represent a highly aggressive form of government intrusion that appears to be in conflict with the First Amendment, and the media, to its credit, is attributing the ramped-up government scrutiny of journalists to Obama Administration initiatives to stifle leaks. These initiatives continue under the Trump Administration, as evidenced in part by this case.


  • The failure of the media to examine the ethical considerations of this story may be as egregious as the government intrusion into journalists’ private communications. BuzzFeed editors let their reporter report on the Intelligence Committee despite knowing that she was sleeping with the committee’s chief of security—a clear conflict of interest that calls into question the objectivity and integrity of all related reporting. Politico editors have publicly stated that they pulled Ms. Watkins off of any Intelligence Committee-related reporting upon learning about the couple’s relationship. New York Times editors claim that Ms. Watkins informed them about the by-then-ended relationship upon joining the paper, but this begs the question as to why a self-proclaimed paradigm of journalistic ethics would allow such an apparently ethically tainted journalist join their ranks.


  • Ms. Watkins remains with The New York Times as one of their journalists who has now become “the news.” Based on New York Times reporting about this “news,” the paper is far more concerned with potential government intrusion on press records than on examining any questions relating to journalistic ethics. In fact, the word barely makes an appearance in any of the ten related news stories posted by the grand old “Gray Lady” of journalism.


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.

  • All indications suggest that Ms. Watkins broke the journalistic code of ethics dictates to avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived, and to disclose unavoidable conflicts.
  • Sleeping with sources has been a long-held taboo in journalism because of the numerous inherent conflicts of interest that can arise from such an arrangement.
  • Former New York Times Editor Abe Rosenthal famously said, “I don’t care if my reporters are f***ing elephants, as long as they aren’t covering the circus.”
  • That said, the Times code of ethics does not explicitly prohibit reporters from getting romantically involved with their sources, but only requires them to inform their managing editor, who will, in turn, determine the best course of action to avoid any potential conflicts of interest that could arise.
  • This probably helps explain why at least a half-dozen Times journalists have been romantically linked with key Washington officials over the past few decades.


  1. Chicago Tribune— Leak investigation that led to Senate aide’s indictment puts spotlight on New York Times reporter
  2. Red State— Wanna Know Why No One Trusts You, Media? Ali Watkins, That’s Why
  3. The New York Times— In Targeting Times Reporter, Justice Dept. Backs Trump’s Anti-Press Rhetoric
  4. New York Post— New York Times reporter broke the biggest rule in journalism
  5. The Pulitzer Prizes— Finalist: Marisa Taylor, Jonathan Landay and Ali Watkins of McClatchy Newspapers
  6. NBC News— Top Senate staffer arrested in leak probe, after NY Times reporter’s records are seized
  8. The New York Times— New York Times Examines Work History of Reporter in Leak Case
  9. Society of Professional Journalists
  10. American Society of News Editors
  11. The Washington Post— Young reporter in leak investigation enjoyed meteoric rise in Washington journalism
  12. Fox News— Ali Watkins’ past tweets come back to haunt NYT reporter amid leak case
  13. The New York Times— Leak Investigations Triple Under Trump, Sessions Says
  14. U.S. Department of Justice— Former U.S. Senate Employee Indicted on False Statements Charges
  15. Gawker— Tradition of Reporters Sleeping with Sources Still Alive and Well at the New York Times


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


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