The New York Times then, the New York Times now

The current indictment of James A. Wolfe, 58, security director for the Senate Subcommittee on Intelligence for 29 years, for passing classified information to reporters raises an interesting contrast of editorial standards under different editors at the Times over the years.

In his interrogation, Wolfe admitted having a personal relationship with reporter Ali Watkins for three years while she was 30 years his junior.  Watkins had zoomed from college through other news organizations in just four years to becoming national security correspondent for The New York Times, attended by her extraordinary access to insider information in the federal government.  In its investigation, the Department of Justice examined "tens of thousands" of email correspondences and phone records between Wolfe and Watkins, according to the Wolfe indictment.

"She [Ali Watkins] is having her private records scrutinized and spied on by the government for doing her job as a journalist, and the Justice Department's move should be loudly condemned by everyone no matter your political preference," the Freedom of the Press Foundation said.

According to a New York Times spokeswoman: "Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy, and communications between journalists and their sources demand protection."  She added: "Ms. Watkins said she told editors at BuzzFeed News and Politico about it and continued to cover national security, including the committee's work."  And the New York Times had also been informed about Ms Watkin's three-year-long personal relationship with Wolfe.

Leaving aside all parties' self-serving representations as to whether or not Wolfe shared classified material with his paramour Watkins, a key question remained: was Watkins, as the Foundation said, just "doing her job as a journalist?"

Apparently, Dean Baquet's Times thinks so from all its wrapping itself in the lofty mantle of principled journalism.

But sleeping with confidential sources was a firing offense for The New York Times reporters in the era of Abe Rosenthal.  Charles Kaiser described the unfortunate case of a fine reporter, Laura Foreman, hired from The Philadelphia Inquirer.  In his Rosenthal obituary in 2006, Kaiser describes the "reaction when it was revealed that Times reporter Laura Foreman had been sleeping with Pennsylvania state Sen. Henry J. 'Buddy' Cianfrani, when she had been covering the politician for The Philadelphia Inquirer.  'I don't care if my reporters are f‑‑‑‑‑‑ elephants,' said Rosenthal, 'as long as they aren't covering the circus.'  Then he fired Foreman."

A few months after Foreman was fired, Eleanor Randolph at The Washington Post (later at the Times) shared her opinion of the incident.  What should a female reporter with this kind of conflict of interest do?

It is the same thing a man in journalism or politics does about anything from love to stock or other human 'conflicts.' She should tell her editors and write about something else, period.

And if we can't figure out that basic truth, we shouldn't be in the business – not because we're women or because we're immoral but simply because we're dumb.

But that was forty years ago.

In 2007, Laura Castaneda, a journalism professor at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, surveyed the same problem for the Los Angeles Times.  Like kudzu, it now had spread all over journalism in numerous incidents.  "In an ideal world, reporters would never get cozy with the 'elephants.'  In reality, intense relationships with sources or subjects, romantic or not, are common.  And if the past is any indicator, no matter what becomes of Salinas [a Telemundo reporter having an affair with Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa] in the short term, she may indeed end up covering the circus again."

One can only wonder if the only difference between Castaneda's "ideal world" and the world of Ali Watkins is the substitution of excuses for the absence of standards.

Thomas H. Lipscomb is the founding publisher of Times Books at the New York Times Company and has published many bestsellers.  His news reporting has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, the New York Sun, and other papers.  He has written op-eds and reviews for over 40 newspapers from the Washington Post to the Wall Street Journal.  As a digital entrepreneur, he has founded and served as CEO of two public companies based upon his patents.  He lives in New York.

Image credit: Morten Oddvik via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

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