June 29, 2018

It's Still Not About the Sex (II)

[The first part of this article about the Ali Watkins-James Wolfe story, and related matters concerning the ruling class and the media, will be found here. And an important personal note is here.]

An unexpected visitor has arrived to join our consideration of the Watkins-Wolfe story, the machinations of the ruling class, and our culture's special obsessions (with sex, most notably). Jill Abramson, who was executive editor of The New York Times for almost three years until she was fired amid much widely publicized drama, was particularly annoyed by certain aspects of the Times' current performance:
“Kind of pisses me off that @ nytimes is still asking Who Is Ocasio-Cortez? when it should have covered her campaign,” Jill Abramson erupted on Twitter on Wednesday morning—a biting reference to the newspaper’s original headline concerning the 28-year-old socialist’s shocking Democratic primary upset, a landslide actually, over incumbent Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District.
The Times spokeswoman offered the obligatory, “We have enormous respect for Jill and deeply appreciate her passion," criticism is our friend, blahblahblah -- and then: "A few hours after Abramson’s tweet, the headline phrase that pissed her off, 'Who is Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez?' was changed online to 'Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: A 28-Year-Old Democratic Giant Slayer.'" Thank God everyone at the Times is so smart. I hate to think about the kinds of mistakes they might make if they were average dolts like the rest of us.

In a subsequent email exchange with the Daily Beast reporter, Abramson stated that she felt the Times needed "a course correction." She went on to say that the Times is "making horrible mistakes left and right. Here are a few":
“Not covering the ‘stunning’ upset of Joe Crowley. It’s the NYT that was undeservedly stunned, letting down its readers.

“That horrible 3,000-word exposé on Ali Watkins [the Times reporter who’s caught up in a leak investigation involving her ex-boyfriend, a former top staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee] that aired her sex life and conflicts while not probing why she was hired, responsibility of editors, or, most crucially, the value of her journalism (her Carter Page scoop in BuzzFeed actually helped lead to appt of Mueller).

“That story hung a 26-year-old young woman out to dry. It was unimaginable to me what the pain must be like for her.

“Readers, meanwhile, the most important NYT constituency, were left in a state of confusion."
And in a telephone interview, Abramson had still more to say:
The Ali Watkins profile, she said, "read like a steamy romance novel in parts," adding that it amounted to "a front-page piece about 'my love affair with someone.' It’s just crucifying. How do you then show up for work? I don’t see a good resolution for that."

Abramson, a frequent and vociferous critic of Barack Obama’s administration for its aggressive attempts to uncover reporters’ confidential sources, also faulted the story for placing more focus on Watkins’ personal life—and her admittedly questionable decision to withhold information about the government’s actions against her from her employer—than on the Trump Justice Department’s war on leaks.
Let's set aside questions about Abramson's possible motives for these criticisms and whether and to what extent we view her as a credible critic. She herself acknowledged to the Daily Beast reporter: "I fear sounding like a jealous old-timer. I’ve resisted critiquing the place publicly, but this shit is bad." Rather, let's focus on whether her criticisms are valid. I think they are; a review of the first part of this article shows that Abramson and I make some of the same points.

Abramson's argument that the Times story spends far too much time, and offers far too much detail, about Watkins' "sex life" and that the article "read like a steamy romance novel in parts" is unquestionably accurate. What is truly remarkable is that even after all the time and attention spent on the #MeToo movement -- and the Times itself contributed an enormous amount of coverage to that story, including a current lengthy article, "How Saying #MeToo Changed Their Lives" -- the Times has no compunctions at all about providing great prominence to a sleazy story of this kind, with an Evil Woman tempting men with her Evil Sex at its center. This is not to say that I'm as sympathetic to Watkins as Abrams; I'm not. I'll come back to that later.

Note how the Times opens this lengthy story:
The pearl bracelet arrived in May 2014, in the spring of Ali Watkins’s senior year in college, a graduation gift from a man many years her senior. It was the sort of bauble that might imply something more deeply felt than friendship — but then again, might not.

Ms. Watkins, then a 22-year-old intern in the Washington bureau of McClatchy Newspapers, was not entirely surprised. She had met James Wolfe, a 50-something senior aide to the Senate Intelligence Committee, while hunting for scoops on Capitol Hill. He had become a helpful source, but there were times when he seemed interested in other pursuits — like when he presented her with a Valentine’s Day card.
It's not my focus at the moment, but keep in mind the phrase I highlighted: "He had become a helpful source." That's an important point to remember.

This story involves, among other issues, the Trump administration's war on leaks and, very significantly, the complex relationships between reporters and sources (or possible sources), including sources in positions with access to vast amounts of top secret information, as was true in Wolfe's case. But we're first invited to consider the significance of a pearl bracelet given to a young woman -- who's still in college! -- by a man -- who is "many years her senior"!

This slant on the material -- what Abramson justly refers to as sounding like "a steamy romance novel in parts" -- will be found throughout the Times article. For example:
Mr. Wolfe had a sensitive job: head of security at the Senate Intelligence Committee, where he oversaw the handling and distribution of highly classified materials delivered by agencies like the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. It was a high-ranking role that Mr. Wolfe had occupied since before Ms. Watkins was born.
You can hear your spinster Aunt Prunella making "Tsk! Tsk!" sounds under her breath, as she mutters: "Why, he's old enough to be her father!"

It might be nice to imagine that the story would have been handled in a very different manner had Abramson still held her job at the Times. She would like us to believe that, but we'll never know. And the Times' own reputation is on the line. What is pathetic -- and pathetically obvious -- is the enthusiasm with which a "venerated" institution like the Times will immediately offer up a sacrificial victim to distract attention from its own failings. My own view of the Times' behavior differs from Abramson's in this crucial respect: she sees it as the result of bad editorial judgment, while I see it as a deliberate strategy. I should offer one clarifying comment on that point. I am not saying that the decision to focus on "the affair" was a fully conscious one, although it had to be, at least in part. But such decisions are the result of patterns of behavior that accumulate over years; much of the process becomes automatic. In writing especially, choices and turns of phrase ("since before Ms. Watkins was born," rather than -- radical thought! -- simply stating the year) are thrown up by the subconscious, the result of choices and values made and reaffirmed over a substantial period of time.

The fact that the Times utilized this strategy in the midst of the year of #MeToo continues to astonish me. It reminds me of my argument in "Kill That Woman!," which included a discussion of Oscar Wilde's superlative retelling of the Salome story. Tragically, the final paragraphs of that essay remain all too relevant:
It is inconceivable to Herod -- just as it is inconceivable to most men -- that the fault or the responsibility should be his. The fault and the responsibility must be Salome's. The fault and the responsibility must always be woman's. In any confrontation between a man and a woman in our culture, there is only one party to be punished: the woman. ...

Kill that woman. That is the motive, and that is the goal. To the extent women are successful, to the extent they threaten men's monopoly on power and control, they must be demeaned, diminished, treated with unending cruelty, and mocked. When all else fails, they must be eliminated. Kill that woman.

So ends our story for today.
Those who are most critical of Watkins believe that she traded sex for scoops, which Watkins denies. Watkins insists that, once she became romantically involved with Wolfe, he was no longer a source for any of her stories. But what we're told by the Times considerably complicates the question. As noted above, in the initial stages of their relationship, before the sexual element was added, Wolfe was a source, indeed, "a helpful source." From the Times:
Ms. Watkins told friends that she did not start dating Mr. Wolfe until after she left McClatchy in the fall of 2014, and that when the relationship began, she imposed ground rules: She would tell Mr. Wolfe, “You are not my source,” and occasionally interrupt him if he started discussing his government work.

But sometimes, she admitted, it got complicated: She would make a mental note of tidbits he mentioned offhand, or gossip with him about Capitol Hill, or throw out a fact and gauge his reply.

The relationship has prompted concern in many newsrooms that Ms. Watkins’s conduct has made journalists, and particularly women, vulnerable to unfounded accusations of exchanging sex for information. And it has complicated what would otherwise be a straightforward argument for press advocates protesting the seizure of Ms. Watkins’s emails and phone records.
"[S]ometimes ... it got complicated." C'mon. C'mon. Can the few of us with mental ages over seven talk seriously about this for just a moment? If you tell me that you're having an affair with someone in a very sensitive job with access to top secret information -- and you are a reporter who writes stories about the very area in which the person with a very sensitive job works -- that person is one of your sources. Period. You can swear up and down that he isn't, and maybe you've successfully deluded yourself that he isn't. But he's one of your sources. I live in this world, and I know how relationships work. So do you. I also know what ambition can lead people to do.

All of this would be true multiple times over if I were your editor. You're involved romantically with him? He's your source. And yet, in the world of real-life editors, my perspective would appear to be unknown. Consider:
Relationships between reporters and sources are an art, not a science: In Washington, meals and late nights out with sources are part of a journalist’s job description. But becoming romantically involved is widely viewed as a conflict, opening a journalist to accusations of bias. [Imagine!]

Ms. Watkins initially sought advice from a Huffington Post editor, Amanda Terkel, who warned her that critics can use personal relationships against journalists. Editors there decided they were comfortable with her continuing to cover intelligence because Ms. Watkins said she was not using Mr. Wolfe as a source.
Also consider:
People at BuzzFeed say they had a general sense of her personal life: During a job interview, Ms. Watkins told Miriam Elder, an editor, that she was dating a man who did intelligence work on Capitol Hill. She said he was not a source, but did not volunteer Mr. Wolfe’s name or title, and the discussion went no further. (Ms. Elder declined to comment, but did not dispute the account.)

Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor in chief, said he believed Ms. Watkins when she said that Mr. Wolfe was not a source. Mr. Smith, in an email, did not condone dating a source, but he expressed a less draconian view about reporters who date within the industry they cover. “Reporters and editors aren’t some kind of priesthood,” he wrote, adding that editors “make these genuinely complex calls on a case-by-case basis.”
Watkins said Wolfe was not a source -- and the editors believed her.

One further example of editorial malfeasance should be included. In the course of her employment at Politico, editors learned Wolfe's identity:
[E]ditors were also surprised to learn that the man Ms. Watkins had been dating was a powerful official on a committee that she covered.

If Politico editors had reservations about Ms. Watkins’s relationship with Mr. Wolfe, they were not reflected in her assignments: over the following six months, she continued to write about the work of the Senate Intelligence Committee, including a closed-door session with Corey Lewandowski and a meeting with John Podesta.
Confronted by this inspiring display of tenacity and fine-honed judgment, I can only remark that, in an earlier time, with this kind of inextinguishable curiosity, this insatiable quest for the truth, this never-satisfied demand to have all the relevant facts, and all of this coupled with a remarkable degree of intellectual and emotional maturity, huge crowds would still be thronging the New York docks breathlessly awaiting the imminent arrival of the Titanic.

The comments from still another editor should be noted:
“People all across Washington are in all sorts of various relationships,” Ryan Grim, Ms. Watkins’s former editor at The Huffington Post, said in an interview. “You manage it, you put up walls, but you can’t pretend that you’re not human. Ali is a great reporter and I trust her judgment.”

“What I see is the Trump administration seizing a reporter’s records and tricking the press into writing about her sex life,” added Mr. Grim, who is now the Washington bureau chief of The Intercept. “It’s appalling what the Trump administration is doing and I don’t think you should enable it.”
I don't disagree about the seriousness of the seizure of Watkins' phone and email records; I'll comment further on that in the next installment.

As for the notion that the Trump administration is "tricking the press into writing about her sex life," when did anyone ever have to "trick" the press into writing about sex? This is true even of the Newspaper of Record, as the Times has proven beyond all doubt. It is hilarious to watch people who absolutely loathe and detest Trump continue to attribute to him powers and abilities unknown in all of previous history. The man is a marvel! This tactic also relieves people (the press, in this case) of having to take responsibility for their own decisions. And Grim thinks "Ali is a great reporter and I trust her judgment." If she thinks Grim is a thick-headed clod, I trust her judgment, too.

And even though he has no appreciation of the significance of his own utterance, Grim identifies the issue that cries out for attention and examination, but that goes entirely wanting: "People all across Washington are in all sorts of various relationships ... You manage it, you put up walls, but you can’t pretend that you’re not human." In the Watkins-Wolfe story, the focus is on sex for information. But sex is hardly the only commodity offered in exchange for certain benefits. Suppose a reporter unearths a story that is very unflattering to a well-known politician. The reporter knows the politician, who has been a source on several occasions. The reporter goes to the politician with the story, which is not earth-shattering but nonetheless has news value. The politician offers the reporter a bigger story about other people (including some politicians), and asks that the reporter bury the story about him. The reporter agrees. (We'll be kind, and say that the reporter agrees only after hours of tortured soul-searching.)

Or imagine a reporter who writes about economic matters. Many of his sources know about developments that have not yet been announced that will have significant economic impacts. If you knew about even one of those developments in advance, you could make a lot of money. A lot. The sources ask only for favorable treatment in the press. Do you think they might find a reporter or two who would be agreeable to a trade of that kind? The reporters can console themselves with the knowledge that their dealings with other sources are unimpeachable. Hey, life is complicated.

You can multiply these examples endlessly. All over Washington, people are making deals and trades all the time. Every once in a while, a "scandal" will be revealed. People, most notably the media, will announce how outrageous it is, and act as if such behavior is extraordinarily rare, just as they have with this story. Those who study and remember history, including recent history, know that trades of all kinds are the lifeblood of government. This is especially true when a government has immense powers and touches every area of life -- our present government, for example. Wouldn't it be fascinating to read a long, long story documenting some of the various kinds of trades and exchanges that are made? The problem, of course, is that the corruption is so all-encompassing that such a story would necessarily expose and damage too many "untouchables," those with sufficient power to ensure that they will never suffer such exposure.

So that is a story you will never see on the front page of The New York Times.

(There will be a third installment. Still more to be said! Meanwhile, a post about some personal matters, and some assistance I could dearly use at the moment, can be read here. ADDED Sunday, July 1: I just published an update regarding my personal situation. This is not a happy time. I understate.)