The Media Today

Govt overreach, an affair, and muddied waters surrounding a press freedom case

June 25, 2018

The Department of Justice seized the data of a reporter earlier this month, raising press freedom concerns about government overreach and the sanctity of journalists’ work product. But in the weeks since, the personal life of that journalist, New York Times national security reporter Ali Watkins, has become part of the story. On Sunday, the Times published a long look at the case, examining how an affair between a reporter and a security aide has rattled Washington media.

For three years Watkins was involved in a romantic relationship with James Wolfe, a senior aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee, who was charged on June 7 with lying repeatedly to investigators about his contacts with three reporters. Minutes before the indictment against Wolfe was unsealed, the Times reported that prosecutors also secretly seized years’ worth of Watkins’s phone and email records. Press freedom groups quickly decried the government’s actions, arguing that they “represent a fundamental threat to press freedom,” in the words of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The focus on Watkins’s romantic entanglements has muddied the waters on what should be a clear case of government overreach. Her former editor at The Huffington Post, Ryan Grim, told the Times’s Michael M. Grynbaum, Scott Shane, and Emily Flitter, “What I see is the Trump administration seizing a reporter’s records and tricking the press into writing about her sex life. It’s appalling what the Trump administration is doing and I don’t think you should enable it.”

RELATED: Assessing Trump’s press freedom record, one year on

Reading between the lines of statements from the Times and one of Watkins’s former employers, Politico, it’s obvious that management wishes she had been more forthcoming about her relationships and the government’s interest in her contacts. A spokesman for Politico said that Watkins “did not disclose the personal nature of her relationship early on in her tenure.” Last fall, after the relationship with Wolfe ended and Watkins began dating a different staff member from the committee, the same Politico spokesman said editors “were not made aware of this relationship.” The Times, for its part, was made aware of Watkins’s relationship with Wolfe before she began working at the paper, but, on the advice of her lawyers, she didn’t tell her editors that she had received a letter from the Justice Department in February notifying her that it had seized her records until just before news about Wolfe’s arrest broke. A Times spokeswoman said the paper, “obviously would have preferred to know.”

The case presents a set of complicated issues, but the primary focus should remain on the government’s action. Questions about Watkins’s decision-making are fair game; she claims that she never used Wolfe as a source for her reporting, but the Times is reviewing her work history. It is possible, however, to separate the personal issues from the professional concern. If, as it appears, the DOJ did not fulfill its obligation to take “all reasonable steps” to obtain information through alternative sources before targeting reporters’ information, that is a major attack on press freedoms. The most important aspect of the story is that the government seized a reporter’s data as part of a case that doesn’t even involve the leaking of classified information—not the salacious details of an affair.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

As for Watkins, Politico’s Jack Shafer—who notes that relationships between journalists and sources are not unheard of—has a succinct summation of the case. “It’s never OK for reporters to sleep with their sources,” he writes. “Ali Watkins deserves a good scolding and professional reprimands if she crossed that line. But based on what we know about her case, she deserves a second chance. Given all the male reporters over the years who’ve escaped punishment for their sins of the flesh, it’s only fair.”

Below, more on coverage of Watkins, the seizure of her work, and an important press freedom issue.

  • The need for better laws: For The Daily Beast, Gabe Rottman argues that the seizure of Watkins’s data demonstrates the need for a federal shield law. “Journalists, now more than ever, need federal legal protections to ensure that the government can’t indiscriminately seize their confidential records or force them to disclose anonymous sources,” Rottman writes.

  • A messy case: The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple writes that the appearance of a conflict of interest is worth considering, even as the main focus should be on government overreach. “It is possible to decry federal intrusions while conceding there may be some housekeeping in order,” Wemple writes.
  • Sins of the past: CJR columnist Trevor Timm argues that the current administration’s legal actions against the press have their roots in the past. “While Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are undoubtedly responsible for this brazen attack on press freedom, the groundwork for the current moment came from decisions by the Obama administration,” Timm writes.
  • Silencing Trump: Last week, Wolfe’s lawyers asked a judge for a gag order restricting government officials, including President Trump, from commenting on the case, reported BuzzFeed’s Zoe Tillman. Trump has claimed that Wolfe leaked classified information, though the former aide has only been charged with lying to investigators.


Other notable stories

  • The New Yorker’s Jonathan Blitzer has a clear-eyed look at how the humanitarian crisis on the southern border could worsen. “Based on the current numbers, zero-tolerance arrests will lead, within months, to the detention of thousands of people, with no clear end in sight,” he writes. Meanwhile, for CJR, Daniela Gerson, Elizabeth Aguilera, and Yana Kunichoff put together a syllabus of 10 essential stories that explain fundamental points shaping immigration under the Trump administration.
  • Of the 12 headline guests on the Sunday shows, only one was Hispanic, according to The Daily Beast. “A lack of diverse headliners is an oft-noted issue for the Sunday shows,” the article read. “But rarely has a prior week of news demanded a wider range of viewpoints.”
  • Time Editor in Chief Edward Felsenthal defended the magazine’s cover that featured a crying Honduran toddler staring up at President Trump. The child’s father confirmed to The New York Times that the child and her mother were never separated after being stopped at the border, and that they remain detained together in a family residential center in Texas. It was a major mistake by Time, one quickly seized on by those who claimed that the media is contributing to hysteria over the administration’s border policy. Felsenthal told CNN’s Brian Stelter that the picture “symbolized this moment in America.”
  • Turkey’s authoritarian leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, won a new five-year term after securing outright victory in the first round of a presidential poll. Under Erdogan, Turkey has become the world’s worst jailer of journalists. For CJR, Shawn Carrié and Asmaa Omar profile Cumhuriyet, the last major independent newspaper in the country, in the run-up to Sunday’s election.
  • After reports that BuzzFeed would shutter its operations in France, staff in the country voted for a strike starting today, according to reporter Jules Darmanin.
  • Last week, The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove and Maxwell Tani reported that conservative media figure Glenn Beck’s The Blaze “appears to be on its last legs after another round of layoffs.” Asked about the report Sunday on CNN’s Reliable Sources, Beck responded, “I think that’s the most ridiculous question I’ve ever heard,” and walked off the set.
  • Fox News contributor David Bossie, the former Trump Deputy Campaign Manager, told Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist who is black, that he was “out of his cotton-picking mind.” The racist remark drew immediate outrage, and Bossie later apologized on Twitter. Fox News called the comments deeply “offensive and wholly inappropriate,” but did not say whether Bossie would continue to appear on the network’s programming.

ICYMI: Freelancers are precarious. When should they push back?

Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.