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Objective journalism is dying a slow death

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By Kent R. Kroeger (June 11, 2018)

Former Senate Intelligence Committee aide James Wolfe and New York Times reporter Ali Watkins

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The FBI has accused former U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee aide James A. Wolfe of “lying repeatedly to investigators about his contacts with three reporters and made false statements about providing two of them with sensitive information related to the committee’s work (regarding the Trump-Russia investigation).” One of those reporters, Ali Watkins, who worked for Buzzfeed at the time of the suspected leaks, was having an affair with Wolfe while working on the Trump-Russia story.

Two questions need to be answered as a result of this story:

Was it appropriate for the former Buzzfeed reporter, Ali Watkins, now working for The New York Times, to be romantically involved with one of her sources?

Is the Trump administration threatening the press’ freedom by covertly collecting a reporter’s phone call and e-mail metadata?

Unfortunately, the initial answers to these questions coming from the news media and the Trump administration are, at best, inadequate and potentially even harmful to the proper functioning of a free press in our society.

Watkins’ transgressions occurred before she began working for The Times, so her firing would not serve any direct purpose. Nonetheless, The Times cannot be silent regarding their reporter’s past behavior, which, if left unaddressed, compromises her professional integrity going forward. The Times should care about that.

Instead, the Times’ and press freedom watchdog groups are justifiably focused on the threat to press freedom generated by the FBI’s use of investigative powers obtains Watkins’ private communications data.

The Times is calling the FBI’s seizure of a reporter’s phone and e-mail records “an outrageous overreach” and justifiably wonders if these FBI actions won’t make it harder for the press to do its job when covering future stories about the federal government. The Committee to Protect Journalists reiterates The Times’ concerns when it says the FBI’s seizure of a reporter’s records is “a fundamental threat to press freedom.”

Many observers are quick to point out that Barack Obama’s FBI engaged in similar behavior while tracking down national security related leaks within his administration. The Times’ former reporter James Risen wrote of being targeted by the FBI: “If Donald J. Trump decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the FBI to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power: Barack Obama.”

There must be a clear social distance separating reporters from their sources

But little is coming from The Times or the news media, in general, about the propriety of journalists being romantically involved with their sources.

That social distance between a reporter and his/her sources is critical to the objectivity of the story. Yet, the news media is largely silent on that aspect of the Wolfe/Watkins story.

The irony here is that we know about the affair between Wolfe and Watkins through The Times’ own reporting. So why hasn’t The Times taken a clearer editorial stand on what behavior is (and is not) appropriate between reporters and sources? spaper that once was led by legendary editor Abe Rosenthal.

New York Post columnist Michael Goodwin suggests The Times should recall what its legendary editor Abe Rosenthal once did when confronted with a similar situation:

“Soon after a woman who had covered politics in Philadelphia was hired by the Times, a story from Philly said she had a secret affair with a politician she covered and accepted expensive gifts from him.

Rosenthal asked the woman if the story was true and, when she replied yes, immediately told her to clean out her desk and said she would never work for the paper again.

Word of the incident spread quickly through the newsroom, and several female reporters complained to Rosenthal. They argued that the woman was treated unfairly, at which point Abe raised his finger for silence and said something to this effect: “I don’t care if you f–k an elephant on your personal time, but then you can’t cover the circus for the paper.”

The meeting was over, case closed.”

At its DNA-level, good journalism requires objectivity. Otherwise, it is little more than advocacy journalism.

Though political researcher Lee Drutman argues that we should not mourn the passing of objective journalism:

“Americans will have to learn to live with partisan media, which is the norm in most democracies, just as conflict and contestation are democratic norms (consensus politics deprives voters of meaningful choices). Partisan media can amplify existing partisan divisions — see Fox News yet again — but mostly they reflect them. In a political system divided on fundamental questions of science, religion, and national identity, the question of what responsible media looks like will only get more pressing — but it can’t be answered in terms of “objectivity.”

But that argument is easy to make when you are ideologically left-of-center, and knowing that the vast majority of journalists are themselves left-of-center. The status quo in journalism is working for Lee Drutman right now.

For the majority of Americans, however, who are neither ‘liberal’ or a Democrat, today’s journalism is not working for them.

Evidence of this fact is that the average American, in general, is rather bad at understanding the opinions of those with whom they disagree. Vox’s Brian Resnick summarizes this problem and offers research that potentially helps people overcome that problem.

Our inability to understand opposing viewpoints is, in my opinion, a direct function of the biased content of most news today, particularly news on the cable new networks.

If you get your news from the Fox News Channel, you see the world one way. If you get it from MSNBC, you see things differently. Both of those news sources are biased and therefore unreliable, assuming the goal is to inform American citizens.

Spying on Journalists in Not OK

The other big issue with the Wolfe/Watkins story is the tacit acceptance many have with the idea that the FBI, in pursuing leaks of national security-related information, can covertly collect phone and email data from journalists.

The George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations both normalized the act of the FBI covertly collecting personal information from working journalists. (Yes, Nixon’s administration engaged in these tactics too, but is that the standard you want other administrations to follow?)

More contemporaneously, spying on journalists started with the George W. Bush administration. It was the 2003 outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame that led the Bush administration to conduct an investigation into who leaked her identity. When it was all over, a number of senior Washington journalists were subpoenaed and forced to name the officials who had told them about Plame’s identity. And, in the end, it was the Times’ Judith Miller that spent three months in jail for trying to protect her sources.

The Plame case set the precedent that presidential administrations would no longer let First Amendment concerns prevent them from pursuing classified information leaks.

As mentioned earlier, it was under the Obama administration that The Times’ reporter James Risen weathered a First Amendment attack from an administration determined to track down the sources of leaked classified information.

Says Risen: “Under Mr. Obama, the Justice Department and the FBI have spied on reporters by monitoring their phone records, labeled one journalist an unindicted co-conspirator in a criminal case for simply doing reporting and issued subpoenas to other reporters to try to force them to reveal their sources and testify in criminal cases.”

Look at it from this perspective. We live in a country that aggressively protects the constitutional right of Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland High School shooter, to possess a near military-grade semi-automatic rifle, but turns a relative blind eye to the government’s systematic efforts, in pursuit of “leakers,” to diminish the First Amendment rights of American journalists.

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