As Americans were finalizing their holiday plans on July 3, the New York Times quietly announced that Ali Watkins, the reporter caught up in a federal investigation into illegal leaks of classified information, would be reassigned rather than fired.
Executive editor Dean Baquet confirmed Watkins, 26, would be moved from the paper’s D.C. bureau to its New York headquarters, “where she will be closely supervised and have a senior mentor.”
“We hold our journalists and their work to the highest standards,” Baquet said in a statement. “We are giving Ali an opportunity to show that she can live up to them. I believe she can. I also believe that The Times must be a humane place that can allow for second chances when there are mitigating circumstances.”
Get that, all you ambitious J-school students? Even though Baquet admits his reporter flouted the basic ethical standards of journalism as well as the paper’s internal conduct guidelines, she can keep her job. You can cheat, lie, break the company’s rules, embarrass an entire profession and you will still get to work at one of the nation’s top newspapers! Polish up those résumés, kids!
The Ali Watkins matter exposes everything that is wrong with the American media. A young reporter trades sex-for-scoops with a powerful man more than 30 years her senior and it’s excused as business-as-usual; the man, James Wolfe—who is responsible for safeguarding classified documents for the Senate Intelligence Committee—illegally leaks government secrets to her to slander Trump associates and boost the politically motivated Trump-Russia collusion hoax; editors at other news organizations not only know about the affair, but hire her because of it so she can continue to access secrets about the Trump-Russia probe; when her tawdry, unethical behavior is disclosed only after Wolfe is arrested for lying to the FBI about their relationship, her peers in the press rush to her defense; and arrogant media overlords apply a different set of standards to their own profession and expect the government to consider reporters a protected class.
The Washington Post said the situation “thrust the Times into the awkward position of investigating one of its own journalists for possible ethical violations.” Think about that. The very profession that prides itself on investigating the ethical violations of politicians, government officials, business titans and basically everyone else backs off when it’s one of their own.
So who watches the watchers?
They Make Trump’s Critique Easy
Baquet’s memo is also an example of why President Trump is justified in waging war against the media. Rather than own up to and apologize to the public (isn’t the media always demanding someone apologize for some imagined slight?) for the damaging misconduct of one of its employees, Baquet portrays Watkins as a victim whose constitutional rights were violated because federal officials seized her phone records and emails connected to the Wolfe investigation: “We abhor the actions of the government in this case. Without notice, investigators rummaged through years of a journalist’s phone and email records, an intrusion that puts First Amendment protections at risk and violated Justice Department guidelines that have bipartisan support.” It is the government’s behavior—not Watkins’s—that the Times finds so offensive.
Now, Baquet has no idea why the FBI took her records. What if she illegally possessed classified information on her devices? What if she was in contact with other government officials who were unlawfully feeding her secrets? Having a journalism degree and a fancy byline does not protect you from the consequences of breaking the law. But Baquet underscores why so many Americans are frustrated and distrust the media: There is a different set of rules for reporters than for the rest of us.
And here is perhaps Baquet’s most outrageous claim: “It is worth noting that prosecutors were not looking into leaks of documents involving warfare or life-and-death secrets. Ali was reporting about an inquiry into whether one of the president’s campaign advisers had been approached by Russian agents in 2013.” This is the editor of one of the world’s most influential newspapers downplaying the unlawful handling of classified documents by a top government official. This is the same news organization that has written hundreds of articles about every imagined ethical breach by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, including how he used a government email account, but pooh-poohs the fact a top Senate staffer gave away top secret information to his lover-journalist to smear Trump campaign associates.
Further, Baquet’s suggestion that the classified information Watkins accessed from her lover is no biggie is utterly false. The article Baquet refers to is Watkins’s April 2017 hit job in BuzzFeed on Carter Page, the Trump campaign volunteer who was spied on by the Justice Department for a year based on phony accusations he possibly was acting as a Russian foreign agent. According to the Wolfe indictment, the Page article was based on classified information Wolfe provided to her in order to boost the plotline orchestrated by Trump foes and the media that the president’s campaign had significant ties to the Russians.
But this was not a victimless crime, as Baquet suggests. Watkins’s articles on Page (she wrote one for the Times as well, which linked to her BuzzFeed piece) contributed to the public vilification of Page, a man who has yet to be charged with any crime. Her political motivation—and that of the Times honchos—is clear: Anyone is expendable in Trump’s orbit. The media can attack, get caught red-handed for using shady tactics, and no one is held accountable or needs to apologize. (Neither BuzzFeed nor the Times has retracted her article on Page.)
Watkins has lots of other defenders in the media; some critics are outraged that the Times publicized the issue. Ben Smith, Watkins’s editor at BuzzFeed, continues to support his former employee and slammed the Times for “dissecting the private life of a young reporter.” (Smith admitted he knew about the relationship and allowed her to cover the Senate Intelligence Committee.) Female reporters have rallied around Watkins, blaming sexism for her harsh treatment in the media. (Keep in mind, Watkins was a college intern when she started sleeping with a married man and carried on a three-year affair with him.)
This is why Trump is right to take on the media. The Ali Watkins matter proves there is zero accountability in the news media, egregious actions that damage innocent people are excused, and journalists are not held to the same standards they demand of others. For all the bad behavior of the news media during the Trump era, this tawdry tale might have the most lasting impact.