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Archive for July, 2018

Since graduating from Temple University in 2014, 26-year-old reporter Ali Watkins has held high-profile reporting positions with four organizations, including The New York Times, which hired her in December as national security reporter in the paper’s prestigious Washington bureau.

For a January story on the Temple journalism school’s website, a reporter asked Watkins how she had become so successful so quickly. Her answer was…

“It’s more of just showing up at the odd hours when no one else is showing up. Showing up all the time and eventually running into somebody who knows something.”

What she neglected to tell the J-school reporter was that it also helps to be dating the people you’re covering.

Maybe you’ve heard Watkins’ name. She’s been the subject of several national stories since it was reported that she had an extraordinary pipeline to inside information due to the fact that for at least three years (starting when she was 22 or 23) she carried on a romantic relationship with a 57-year-old, high-ranking aide on the Senate Intelligence Committee…Oh, and he was married.

The aide, James Wolfe, who handled classified material for the committee, was arrested in June as part of a leak investigation by the U.S. Justice Department. In the course of the investigation, Justice Department officials surreptitiously seized Watkins’ phone and email records.

James Wolfe and Ali Watkins

Wolfe has now been charged with lying to the FBI — although not with leaking classified information — and Watkins has been transferred out of The Times’ Washington bureau and reassigned to a new beat in New York, where she will have a “mentor,” who will help her get off to “a fresh start.”

(The Washington Post has reported that the indictment document includes various instances in which Wolfe received sensitive information and then communicated with Watkins on the same day.)

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When this story was first reported, it raised alarms with me. How, I wondered, could a young reporter be so dumb as to hook up with a man more than twice her age, exposing herself to at least the suspicion that she was trading sex for inside information? It struck me as absolutely the wrong road to take if a reporter was striving for a long and successful career in the business.

At first, however, the emphasis in news stories was on how outraged journalists were at law enforcement officers seizing her phone and email records. I was more curious about Watkins’ judgment, as well as The Times’ decision to hire her on the basis of such a quick, hop-scotching career ascent.

The first organization she worked for was McClatchy (which, of course, owns The Kansas City Star), where she started out as an intern during her junior year in collect. There she helped break a national story about the CIA spying on the Senate. After she graduated, McClatchy offered her a full-time job, and the next year she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her work on the CIA spying story.

In quick succession, she went on to work for the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Politico. At each merry-go-round stop she worked as a national security reporter and, presumably, was covering the Senate Intelligence Committee, for whom her gray-haired boyfriend worked.

Her dizzying career climb culminated late last year when she was hired by The Times. During the hiring process, she told editors about her relationship with Wolfe and said it had ended about four months earlier.

I’d like to think that if I had been one of the editors interviewing Watkins for a job at The Times, loud bells would have started ringing in my head. A 26-year-old woman had a three-year relationship with a 57-year-old Senate Intelligence Committee staffer? And she kept coming up with one big national security story after another? And she had already worked for four major news organizations?   

As the old saying goes, when something looks too good to be true, it probably is. Somebody in the hiring chain at The Times should have thought about that. Surely, they did but ultimately set any misgivings aside in the face of the woman’s sterling and astounding reporting record in just four years.

In hindsight, Times editors seem to have awakened from the soporific state they were in when they hired Watkins.

In today’s story about Watkins’ reassignment, Times executive editor Dean Baquet said, among other things, “For a reporter to have an intimate relationship with someone he or she covers is unacceptable.”

Very true. It was also very true when Times editors were interviewing Watkins and learned that she had been engaging in that “unacceptable” conduct for three long years.

In the wake of the embarrassing Watkins episode, Baquet said, The Times would “tighten our job-candidate screening process to ensure that significant questions make their way to the newsroom leadership for full discussion.”

**

Unfortunately, dating and having sex with a man whose agency she was reporting on (she also briefly dated another committee staff member following the affair with Wolfe and while still at Politico) wasn’t Watkins’ only mistake. After Justice Department officials notified her in February they had seized her phone and email records, she did not tell her editors, instead keeping that information to herself on the advice of her personal attorney.

In an understatement, Baquet said that decision “put our news organization in a difficult position.”

In a Vanity Fair story, a former Times executive editor, Jill Abramson, put it much more strongly, saying…

“People are entitled to make mistakes and learn from them and be forgiven. But the original mistake is compounded by not initially telling the Times that her records had been seized and searched. Putting myself back in the executive editor’s chair, it’s sort of like, everyone who works for the Times is conscious that at all times, the reputation of the place is something you’re responsible for protecting, and when anything material to your work happens, you have to tell your editor. That’s a pretty big lapse.”

**

My guess is we will be hearing very little from Ali Watkins, in the role of journalist, in the future. She’ll probably drift off into obscurity under the watch of her new babysitter…uh, mentor…and will be cut loose completely within a year or so.

For the short time it lasted, it was a wild ride for the hotshot out of Temple University. Now she’s going to have a long time to think about the ramifications of her early decisions.

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A story in today’s KC Star about the tragic death of a 38-year-old man who died in a fluke highway accident Friday is the latest example of the deteriorating state of affairs at our formerly reliable and well-edited daily paper.

In a feature story about the death of trucker Jorrard Davis, veteran reporter Joe Robertson omitted a critical piece of information, which enabled him to take the story in the direction he wanted to take it — that is, suggesting the accident was more the fault of police and another driver than of Davis’ poor judgment.

The facts are straightforward: After being pulled over because the rear door of his semitractor-trailer had come open, Davis walked into a lane of interstate traffic. Traffic was slowing when he got out of the truck, but another 18-wheeler struck an unmarked police car that was among the vehicles slowing down and knocked the police car into Davis.

Almost shockingly, Robertson failed to report in his story that Davis was walking in a lane of traffic when he was struck.

Instead, Robertson left it at this:

Davis had gotten out of his truck when another semitractor-trailer struck an unmarked police car in the lane next to Davis’ truck and knocked the police car into Davis, killing him.”

The omission of Davis wandering onto the interstate strongly enabled Robertson’s portrayal of heartbroken family members who are now trying to blame the police department and the driver of the other truck.

It is possible that the police department and the other trucker are partly to blame but the fact that Robertson failed to report Davis’ own faulty judgment certainly failed to paint an accurate, even-handed of what happened.

The omission was almost shocking, as I said above, because a story about the accident in Sunday’s paper — a story by another reporter — ran under this headline in the printed edition…

Police: Trucker killed in I-29 wreck was walking on highway.”

That story was written by a young reporter named Max Londberg.

Londberg reported something else that Robertson didn’t bother to repeat: Not only had the door of Davis’ truck come open, but “items inside had nearly fallen out.”

Obviously, the sight of items in danger of falling out the back of the truck had to increase the police officer’s sense of urgency in pulling Davis over.

**

The only conclusion you can draw from Robertson’s flawed account is that he wanted to indulge the family members’ recriminations and second-guessing.

Robertson introduced a lengthy section of second-guessing with these words — “Now questions trouble the family of a man who relatives described as “the glue” that held generation together…”

The first second-guesser Robertson quoted was a cousin, who was demanding to know, “Why was the second cop car blocking the second lane?”

Farther down the story, Robertson quoted an aunt of Davis who talked about what a safe driver he was. And then there was speculation from a great uncle that the driver of the rig that struck the unmarked police car was distracted.

**

I can certainly understand why family members want to know more about the unmarked police car — why it happened to be at or near the scene — and if the other truck driver had not been paying attention or had been going too fast.

But as a reporter, Robertson had a duty to include all pertinent facts. And there he failed.

And he wasn’t the only journalist who failed on that story.

As I’ve said before, the quality and quantity of editing has fallen off a cliff at The Star. Whoever edited that story should have made sure he or she was familiar with Londberg’s story before editing Robertson’s story. It would appear that the editor either had not read Londberg’s story or — and I sure hope this wasn’t the case — intentionally did not hold Robertson’s feet to the fire.

I know all too well it can be easy to shrug and let a reporter have his or her way, especially an extremely experienced reporter like Joe Robertson, who’s been with the paper at least 20 years and possibly closer to 30.

But it’s wrong, and it’s another sign The Star is increasingly enfeebled.

We all know why The Star is deteriorating: Like many other formerly great metropolitan dailies, it has fallen victim to corporate journalism as conducted by people trying to either cut their way out of debt or bleed their properties for all they can before they sell or go bankrupt.

In the meantime, while we wait to see the ultimate fate of The Star and the 28 or so other dailies in the McClatchy chain, I think the least readers can ask for is an honest and complete presentation of facts from the reporters and editors still drawing salaries down at 17th and McGee.

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