Judge not, lest ye end up in a similarly painful situation: Ali Watkins, James Wolfe and getting “involved” with sources

When we write the textbooks that you learn from, I and other authors lay out clear and concrete rules for how things “should” work, as we cover everything from interviews to ethics. On the black-and-white pages of piety, things always seem simple and direct: Do this, don’t do that, be this, don’t become that…

So, when a story like this one breaks about the New York Times’ Ali Watkins and her three-year romantic relationship with a source, the textbook author in me should say, “Here is a clear example of a breakdown in ethical behavior and a harbinger for all you budding reporters out there of what not to do.” However, in a case like this, I go back to the Herb Score Axiom on Errors: “Don’t be too quick to second guess. Sometimes there’s a good reason that someone made a bad play.”

Journalists and sources often find themselves careening toward each other in professional and social situations that lead to potentially painful consequences. We end up on late-night phone calls or in dive bars with people who can help us see things that might matter to us and our readers. We mix business and pleasure because the lines blur and we occasionally make an imperceptible pivot from small talk to “Uh-Oh.”

The Times has an extensive code of ethics and addresses the issue of romantic entanglements:

Clearly, romantic involvement with a news source would foster an appearance of partiality. Therefore staff members who develop close relationships with people who might figure in coverage they provide, edit, package or supervise must disclose those relationships to the standards editor, the associate managing editor for news administration or the deputy editorial page editor. In some cases, no further action may be needed. But in other instances staff members may have to recuse themselves from certain coverage. And in still other cases, assignments may have to be modified or beats changed. In a few instances, a staff member may have to move to a different department — from business and financial news, say, to the culture desk—to avoid the appearance of conflict.

In other words, we’d prefer it if the world were perfect, but since it’s not, here are some guidelines. Still, rather than thinking, “There, but by the grace of God, go I,” many journalists have found time to criticize Watkins in some pretty irrelevant ways, laying out tawdry details and “tsk, tsk”-ing her in some inappropriate ways. Stories reference the age gap between them (she being in her mid-20s and him being in his mid-50s during the affair), as a damning element of this situation. The same is true of the stories that unwind Wolfe’s marital status, reinforcing a “homewrecker” stereotype. Some writers paint Watkins as the young girl who wandered into thicket of Washington jungle where she fell under the spell of an older man. Others insinuate she slept her way into scoops.

I don’t know Watkins personally, nor do I know enough about her situation to defend it or lambaste it. Based on the keyhole view I got from the media reports on her, I imagine her reality is much more nuanced than those cut-and-dried assessments of her character purport it to be. I can, however, sympathize with her, as I found myself in two similar situations where professional and personal overlapped in a truly awkward fashion.

In my first reporting job, I worked night-time general assignment, so I didn’t really have a beat or a stock set of sources I called repeatedly, other than the on-duty coroner and whoever was working the overnight shift at the sheriff’s office. Through several mutual friends, I ended up meeting a woman I started to date and things eventually got serious. She was into politics, a field that bored me to death, but as her “significant other,” I got dragged to a lot of cheese-and-cracker parties where county supervisors, city counselors and state reps blathered on about their plans to divvy up the world even more. Eventually, she won election to the city council and somewhere after that, we got engaged.

In the two-plus years I worked at the paper, I never once covered a city council meeting. I did a ton of committee meetings (way more planning and zoning meetings than I cared to count) and a number of fundraising speeches, but never a council meeting. Still, the minute we decided to go this route, I called my editor and told him that I’d been dating her for a while and that we were now engaged and it was best to say something. He said it was no problem and congratulations and that he’d see me Monday.

When I showed up for my shift on Monday, he told me that the city reporter was out sick so I had to go cover the city council meeting. I protested, explaining that a) I was engaged to a city council rep and b) we had told everyone so it was going to be weird. His response stuck with me: “It’ll be fine. Just don’t quote her.”

The rest of the night was awkward as hell. Ever rep came up to me and gave me some level of crap about, “Hey, what are you doing here?” One asked if I was going to be a “hype man” for her while someone else asked, “Are you here to keep an eye on your girl?” As bothersome as it all was, it paled in comparison to later cheese-and-cracker parties and late-night bar gatherings, where half the people treated me like a narc and the other half tried to use me to plant stories. We eventually broke off the engagement for none of these reasons, but not having to deal with the weirdness was a good secondary benefit.

The “just don’t quote her” line stuck with me for years and continued to bother me. I would have thought the editor would have done more to protect me or the paper or both from the situation. In reading through the various stories on Watkins, it seems clear she wasn’t hiding her relationship. It also seems clear her editors didn’t really get all excised about this source sending her jewelry and asking her out. Nobody stepped in and said, “Break it off or you won’t have a job.” It was kind of a “just don’t quote him” situation.

The second time this happened to me, I was engaged (again) and I was the editor of the police and courts beat in Columbia, Missouri. My soon-to-be wife was a police dispatcher for the university’s police department. Everybody was aware of the situation on both ends and nobody put up much of a fuss. I was finishing my Ph.D., which meant this situation was likely to be over in less than a year. Plus, in a city like Columbia, where the J-school is a dominant force, it’s tough to avoid situations like this in attempting to form a social relationship.

(Side note: I think it’s important to note here that I don’t want any of you coming to the conclusion that I was somehow attracting women to me like a boy band simply because both of these situations start with me being engaged to people. I find it a miracle on par with the loaves and fishes that one human being, let alone two, would consider me an acceptable life partner. If you ever meet me, I’m sure you’ll agree with a, “Really? This guy?” analysis of my socially awkward manner and lack of all manner of discernment.)

In any case, Amy and I found ourselves doing a dance similar to the one Watkins and Wolfe did. On more than one occasion, she came home from work and wanted to unburden herself of a day’s worth of stupid criminal stories and workplace ineptitude. However, she would look at me and say, “I’m talking to my husband now. I’m not talking to a journalist, right?” I’d feel edgy, in that I could practically smell the news tips in her exasperated tone.

After a bit of hemming and hawing on my part, she’d say, “Go out on the porch and come back in when you’re my husband.” Ten minutes to a half hour later, I’d return to hear about how a football player got pulled over for the fifth time or how the police chief wrecked his car twice in two days. I knew which cops competed for “the most tickets written” prize and which guy drove his motorcycle into his neighbor’s living room on accident. And, there was that one time she called me to tell me she had one of my reporters in her holding cell.

After work get-togethers were awkward as well, with her friends being guarded around me and my friends expressing frustration with uncooperative police sources. Even though we loved our jobs, we also were grateful when we didn’t have this conflict of interest in our lives.

The point in rehashing all of this is to explain that the simple answer (don’t date a source) is easy to say in a textbook or a classroom, but it is often reductive in the real world. I find it somewhat similar to the argument about people who tell you the best way to avoid having naked pictures of yourself on the internet is to never take any naked pictures of yourself.

No, this isn’t a hall pass to go hook up with that SGA kid you thought was sweet or to go all Anthony Weiner with your cell phone. My point here is that life can get messy and that teaching an “abstinence only” position for all all potential conflicts of interest can leave you unprepared for what to do when reality intervenes on your plans.

You should try to avoid dating sources, but if something happens where you find yourself in that situation, tell your editors. If your editors are like Watkins’ first editor (Mr. “As long as he’s not giving you stock”), tell other people you think can act as sounding boards and firewalls for you. Establish ground rules with your significant other and stick to them as best as you can. If the situation becomes too difficult, see if you can transfer beats or determine how valuable the relationship is to you. I loved crime reporting and editing, but if it was give up the beat or give up Amy, I’d give up the beat in a heartbeat.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. Regardless of your best efforts, things are bound to get messy.


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