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Is It OK to Sleep With Your Sources?

Why shouldn’t reporters have sex with the people they cover?

The answer, everybody will tell you, is orgasmically obvious: It’s the same reason reporters shouldn’t partner in a business with their sources or go vacationing with them! Such mixing contaminates the end product with the unforgivable taint of compromise and conflict of interest, hence the taboo. Also, sleeping with a source can be interpreted as payment for information—another no-no in American journalistic circles. A third worry: Any normalization of sex-for-news-tips transactions would increase the already onerous demands and expectations that some sources force on reporters—mostly female reporters—to put out for them.

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So on this we all agree: Journalists shouldn’t sleep with their sources, something most in-house ethics manuals endorse. If you score with somebody you cover or with a source, you’re supposed to tell your boss and recuse yourself from the beat. New York Times guidelines instruct the paper’s journalists to maintain social distance from sources and subjects to “avoid creating an appearance of coziness,” explicitly ruling out golfing regularly with subjects and sources or playing cards with them. As for “romantic involvement” (Times speak for bouncy-bouncy) with a news source, Times reporters are supposed to alert their superiors of any such entanglement, leaving it to them to decide whether a conflict exists and how to remedy it, including transfers to other beats.

But the hard and fast rules of ethics manuals, not to mention taboos, don’t always deter journalists from blending business with pleasure. This month, to put a news peg on it, New York Times reporter Ali Watkins was faulted for having grown too close to one of her potential sources, former Senate Intelligence Committee aide James A. Wolfe. Wolfe, recently indicted for lying to FBI agents investigating a leak of classified information from his committee, pleaded not guilty last week. Watkins, who worked at McClatchy, HuffPost, BuzzFeed and then Politico before going to the Times, had a four-year romantic relationship with Wolfe, according to the indictment, running from December 2013 until December 2017. The two exchanged tens of thousands of electronic communications over that time, met frequently at her apartment and elsewhere, and took two trips overseas together.

(Disclosure: Watkins and I enjoyed a collegial rapport during her Politico tenure, but we never worked on any story or column together.)

I describe Wolfe as a “potential source” because Watkins has denied to the Times that he was one. Wolfe also denied to investigators that he gave Watkins information that was not publicly available, classified or otherwise. And the indictment does not assert that he leaked classified information to her. But allegations presented in the indictment point with all fingers on both hands toward the likelihood that he leaked to her. (The indictment also documents Wolfe’s regular contacts with three other reporters, but does not hint at any personal relationships.)

While working for BuzzFeed in April 2017, Watkins broke the big story that Russian spies attempted in 2013 to recruit Carter Page (who would later join the Trump campaign). Nobody anywhere has disputed the accuracy of her story. The indictment suggests this scoop likely originated as classified information in Wolfe’s possession. One message Wolfe sent to Watkins in December 2017, included in the indictment, smacks of a leaker’s confession: “I always tried to give you as much information that I could and to do the right thing with it so you could get that scoop before anyone else,” Wolfe wrote. “I felt like I was part of your excitement and was always very supportive of your career and the tenacity that you exhibited to chase down a good story.”

Merging business and romance has a long journalistic history — see these overviews on the topic in the American Journalism Review and the Los Angeles Times for the leading examples. Hollywood has adopted this forbidden pairing as a trope to power its stories, usually with female reporters bedding male sources. A short list of reporters and sources having sex in contemporary movies and TV shows include Thank You for Smoking, Absence of Malice, Nashville, Scoop, Scandal, Trainwreck, Top Five, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, The Fly, Fletch, Mr. Deeds, Three Kings, The West Wing, Crazy Heart, and Iron Man. As her detractors have noted, Watkins commented on the wisdom on sleeping with sources before she got involved with Wolfe — tweeting this in April 2013 about the House of Cards reporter who does: “I wanted to be Zoe Barnes…until episode 4. Sleeping with your source—especially a vindictive congressman? #badlifechoice #HouseofCards.”

Forbidden romances can manifest on any news beat, but presidential campaigns produce hot pairs better than almost any mechanism this side of Match.com. Reporters and the campaign staffers share interests — the candidate, the issues, the outcome of the election and politics in general. They tend to speak the same language, nudging them closer to the sack. Everybody ends up drinking and bunking in the same hotels, often traveling on the same plane or bus together for weeks or months, and the increased mutuality engendered by close proximity breeds attraction. Considering the circumstances, we should be less astonished that reporters and sources sometimes get it on than that they don’t get it on more often.

In prospecting for news, a reporter must signal to his source his deep interest in the topic, his fascination with his source, and his trustworthiness. If the interest and fascination are sincere, great. But if the story is important enough, reporters have been known to fake it. If rebuffed, the reporter must continue to charm and flatter his way to a source’s confidence. When going out for drinks with a source (is not alcohol the ultimate truth serum?), the reporter must laugh at his source’s jokes, especially if they’re not funny. From the outside, the source-building scrimmage can look a lot like courtship. It’s a lot like a mating dance — only you mustn’t mate.

Newsrooms prohibit journo-source romances because, as we’ve learned, romance impedes journalistic impartiality. But there are other ways to shed impartiality. Reporters become over-dependent on favorite sources all the time, parroting their every position without ever getting intimate. Friendships blossom on the beat, and sources and reporters grow dependent on one another. Editors end up policing romances because it’s easy to show that a reporter has lost his impartiality because he’s shtupping his source. It’s harder to prove that friendship has made a reporter a pushover for his sources, so platonic relationships tend to go uncontested, and we stupidly reserve the scarlet letter of lost impartiality for romancing journalists only. The ethics cops seem oblivious to the fact that people you haven’t slept with often wield more influence over you than those who have.

Should the Watkins controversy be mitigated by the fact that she got the scoop and that nobody, as of yet, has contested her stories? No. But a generation ago a leading journalist by the name of Laura Foreman made such a case. While reporting for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Foreman fell in love with and had a long-term affair with a Henry J. “Buddy” Cianfrani, a powerful Pennsylvania state senator who later went to prison on racketeering charges. She remained on the politics beat and wrote repeatedly about him for the Inquirer. She also accepted gifts worth $ 43,000 in today’s money, including a mink coat and a Morgan sports car. In 1977, she moved on to the New York Times, where she reported on politics for the paper’s Washington bureau. When the Times top editor, A.M. Rosenthal, learned of the Philly relationship, he demanded her resignation. “It’s OK to fuck the elephants — just don’t cover the circus,” Rosenthal said. Foreman and Cianfrani married in 1980 after he completed 27 months in prison on charges unrelated to Foreman. The couple were still married when he died in 2002.

Foreman argued in a 1978 piece for the Washington Monthly that journalists had become too distant from the politicians they covered, and that this “Olympian” remove had kept them from covering their subjects as human beings. Although she apologized for “having gone too far in the other direction,” she insisted journalistic traditions had prevented reporters from covering their subjects as “human and therefore fragile.” “I never slanted a story in his favor,” Foreman stated. On this point her editor, Paul Critchlow, agreed in Esquire. “Foreman wrote nothing about Cianfrani — who was and is a legitimate, colorful and politically shrewd operator — that I have not written in my own coverage.”

“I got closer than most, it’s true, and the situation was tricky at times, but I think it paid off in terms of what I was able to write,” Foreman asserted.

Foreman was the press story of the year. Her indiscretions were featured in the Village Voice, the Washington Post, Newsweek, the Washington Star, the Philadelphia Inquirer (17,000 words by Inky aces Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele) and elsewhere. Writing for Esquire’s February 1978 issue, Eleanor Randolph framed the story in the context of the rising numbers of women joining not just newsrooms but all walks of business life. Randolph didn’t defend sleeping with your source, but she held that women were the victims of a nasty double standard.

Writing in the Washington Post in October 1977, columnist Richard Cohen took a similar tack. “Male reporters … have been having affairs with women they cover for as long as there have been reporters, women and spare time,” he wrote. “Suffice it to say, though, that some affairs have been conducted at fairly high levels and suffice it to say, too, that no man has been chastised by his fellows for this kind of activity.” According to Cohen, the operational assumption in American journalism was that when a male reporter slept with his female source, he was “using” her the way James Bond uses the Russian agents he seduces. That Foreman could have been using Cianfrani did not seem to occur to those who judged her, Cohen concludes.

Randolph showcased a marquee example of the double standard for female reporters in her Esquire piece. Chicago reporter Jay McMullen had covered City Hall for the Chicago Daily News for 23 years and for the last four or five years on the beat he openly dated Jane Byrne, the mayor’s right-hand woman (and later mayor herself).

“I don’t get all this new sanctimonious shit,” McMullen said of his critics. “I’ve screwed girls who work at City Hall for years. All those goddamn bluenoses who think you get stories from press conferences — hell, there was a day when I could roll over in bed in the morning and scoop the [Chicago] Tribune. Anybody who wouldn’t screw a dame for a story is disloyal to the paper.” (Is it a great thing or an awful thing that reporters don’t talk like this anymore?)

Talking to Randolph, Times editor Rosenthal laid out his ethical and pragmatic reasons for sacking Foreman, with an emphasis on the pragmatic.

“Everybody agreed that she could not work in Washington,” he said, “so maybe she could go to New York. So what is that supposed to mean, that everybody in Washington had to be ethical but everybody in New York didn’t? Laura had gotten herself in a position where she couldn’t cover any story, and that’s what we had hired her to do. It was a question of a consistent, clandestine relationship with a major political person whom she was writing about. It had nothing to do with sexual morality. I’m not in loco parentis for my reporters. But I am the guardian of the reputation of the Times.”

It’s never OK for reporters to sleep with their sources — or with elephants. 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.

******

A.M. Rosenthal’s elephant one-liner is worded differently depending on where you find it. See Barry Popik’s blog, which catalogues all of the variations. The only thing worse than having to sleep with your source is having to sleep with them a second time. Send journalistic smut to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts once suggested an unconventional liaison with my Twitter feed, which called the ethics cops. My RSS feed lives in an ethics-free zone.

Jack Shafer is Politico’s senior media writer.

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