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Putting journalism at stake

Journalists, of all people, should understand the First Amendment. But, no. Too many of us appear to believe that reporters have an exalted, protected status in the law. Nothing exposes that error like a government leak hunt.

The latest example involves the indictment of longtime Senate staff member James Wolfe on charges that he lied to the FBI about contacts with reporters covering the Senate Intelligence Committee. As security chief for the committee, Wolfe was privy to some of the juiciest secrets in Washington. The indictment charges him with misleading investigators looking into whether he shared some of those secrets with his romantic partner, a much younger reporter named Ali Watkins. Wolfe, who has retired from the Senate staff, pleaded not guilty.

According to the headline on a long, strange trip of a story in The New York Times, Watkins’s present employer, the case has “rattled Washington media”. But how on earth can they tell? Washington media are perpetually rattled these days; the proximate causes shift from hour to hour, if not minute to minute. As I write this, Washington media are rattled by Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s interrupted supper; by the time you are reading it, I bet there will be something else.

What the article actually documents is a series of dangerously rattled Washington editors. One after another, as Watkins rocketed up the career ladder, her supervisors failed to dig deeply enough or to weigh the damage that could be done to the credibility of all media should her pillow talk be made public. Now that the laundry is aired and the damage is done, some of these same editors are minimising the impact on media credibility.

The Times quotes Ryan Grim, for example, who was Watkins’s editor at the Huffington Post at a time when she was breaking big stories about the Intelligence Committee — her other employers include the McClatchy newspaper chain, BuzzFeed and Politico. “People all across Washington are in all sorts of various relationships,” he said.

But that is exactly why editors need to be vigilant about conflicts of interest.

“What I see is the Trump Administration seizing a reporter’s records and tricking the press into writing about her sex life,” Grim continued.

I share his distaste for prying governments. But it’s not enough to see the administration’s leak investigation; the investigation could, and should, have been foreseen. All presidents hate leaks, and the First Amendment gives no more protection to Watkins against the Trump Administration than it gave to James Rosen of Fox News against the Obama Administration or Judith Miller of the Times against the George W. Bush Administration. (Earlier examples could stretch to the Lincoln years and probably beyond.)

Journalists are subject to the same laws as everyone else. If, in the course of our work, we reveal protected secrets, our defence is only as strong as the trust and confidence of the public in our mission. Our right to publish is anchored by the people’s right to know. It’s not about us; it’s about you. When the public are with us — when people believe we are honest brokers of important information — no prosecutor or court will long defy their demand for access to their government’s business.

Conflicts of interest erode that trust.

Despite its length, the Times article had more gaps than Opie’s smile. There is no response from McClatchy to an allegation that an editor there essentially laughed off news that Wolfe sent jewellery to its young reporter. There is no serious digging into Watkins’s apparent claim that her best scoops on the Intelligence Committee beat came from sources other than Wolfe. There is no one from the Times newsroom explaining why they hired a reporter who they knew had broken one of the most famous dictums in the history of the Gray Lady: reporters who, um, sleep with elephants can’t cover the circus.

The article neither entirely convicts Watkins of journalistic malpractice nor exonerates her. She is left twisting in the wind. As long as she twists, so do other female reporters — and more than a few men — whose jealous rivals and sceptical readers can now wonder if they, too, do their reporting in bed. The Times itself is twisting as the public weigh this evidence that standards have been lowered in the age of Trump.

And because the Times is the Times, journalists everywhere feel the ill wind as it twists.

The First Amendment protects the right of all citizens, regardless of occupation, to believe, say and publish what we wish. It does not confer on journalists any cloaks of immunity — or impunity. Nor does it bestow credibility. That must be earned — by scoops, yes, but also by openness, care, good judgment, transparency, consistency and fairness.

In this period of raised voices and raised stakes, this work is more urgent than ever.

David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for The Washington Post. He was previously an editor-at-large for Time magazine, and is the author of four books, including Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year and Triangle: The Fire That Changed America