Sex and Journalism

The embattled reporter at The New York Times who had an intimate relationship with a top Senate staffer was one of my students.

After a quick rise through the ranks of journalism, Ali Watkins was demoted last week for having the affair.

I didn’t know her well, but she struck me as energetic and intelligent, with perhaps a bit too much snarkiness. She appeared to be a reporter with a promising career ahead of her.

What she did was wrong. You don’t have sex with a potential source. Ever. [Note: She denies that the Senate staffer was a source.]

But hypocrisy oozed from the coverage of the affair, particularly when you take a look at other prominent journalists who may have slept their way to the top.

Judith Miller, a prominent member of DaTimes until she got fired for making stuff up, often quoted her live-in lover, the late Les Aspin, who served as Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense. Miller’s affaris were so widely known that one colleague referred to her bedsheets as her notebook.

But there’s a lot more.

Matt Cooper, who worked in high-level positions at several news organizations, married Mandy Grunwald, a longtime media adviser to the Clintons.

Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international reporter, began dating James Rubin, assistant secretary of state for public affairs, in 1997. They got married the next year.

Andrea Mitchell, NBC News’ foreign affairs reporter, dated Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan for 12 years before they got married.

Here in Philadelphia, news anchor Renee Chenault is married to Chaka Fattah, a longtime congressman who was convicted of corruption in 2016.

Each reporter should have been at least reprimanded or perhaps faced more serious consequences for these relationships. Also, the audience should have been told repeatedly about these conflicts of interest. Neither happened.

I doubt that any of these people have a note in their personnel files about these inappropriate relationships.

What’s also disturbing about the Watkins’ case is that several employers knew about her ethical breech, but no one told her to stop it.

That doesn’t in any way mitigate what she did. In my view, she should have been fired long before she got to DaTimes.

Nevertheless, after numerous problems from Brian Williams to Rolling Stone, this recent ethical breech underlines how morally challenged journalism is.