June 27, 2018

It's Still Not About the Sex

Back in April 2013, [Ali] Watkins posted a tweet saying: “I wanted to be Zoe Barnes … until episode 4. Sleeping with your source- especially a vindictive congressman?#bad­lifechoice” [Tweet from Ali Watkins dated April 2, 2013]

Referencing the show [House of Cards], where the protagonist Zoe Barnes embarks on an affair with a powerful congressman and uses their romantic relationship to get stories and in turn, a quick rise to the top.

She later questioned whether the character’s sleeping with sources to obtain story ideas was ethical, asking her followers to weigh in.

“So on a scale of 1 to ethical, how does everyone feel about pulling a @RealZoeBarnes for story ideas? #TOTALLY KIDDING @HouseofCards.” [Tweet from Ali Watkins dated June 20, 2013] -- 'I wanted to be Zoe Barnes ... until episode 4. Sleeping with your source.', June 19, 2018
Avoiding conflicts of interest is a basic tenet of journalism, and intimate involvement with a source is considered verboten. -- The New York Times, How an Affair Between a Reporter and a Security Aide Has Rattled Washington Media, June 24, 2018
On the basis of these two brief excerpts, you may think that sex is a major component of the story we will now consider. That's understandable -- but from the perspective I will urge you to consider, it is entirely wrong. If only this were a story about people screwing their brains out in every imaginable way and combination (and in some ways and combinations that many people probably can't imagine), and having a wonderful time, I would rejoice. Our culture would be far healthier and more life-affirming than it is.

But the majority of Americans think that sex -- of almost any kind, perhaps only excepting sex within the "sanctity" of marriage (but even then, please don't go into detail) -- is dirty and disgusting. Simultaneously, most Americans can't get enough of it. They certainly can't get enough of sex itself, and they can't get enough of gossip and talk of any kind, including by our major news outlets, about sex. The ruling class is well aware of the public's obsession with sex, and they are more than happy to indulge it. That is especially true when the ruling class wants to distract the public from genuinely awful behavior and actions that should be of great concern. Give the public a "dirty" sex scandal, with all the salacious detail that the media's "standards" will allow, and the public will ignore everything else.

Who is telling us the Ali Watkins story, spiced with all the titillating nuggets the public so eagerly gobbles up? That's right: the ruling class itself. Note that I include among the ruling class, as we must, the major media. For at least several decades (and if we are to be accurate historically, for much, much longer than that), the major media has made itself the loyal servant of power and privilege. The major media do everything in their power to protect the prerogatives of those in power, including the ruling class's deadly determination to acquire ever greater power and wealth. This is particularly obvious, and especially lethal, when we turn our gaze to those who cover the national government and the ruling class's activities in Washington, D.C.

Note where the Times wants to force our focus. The strategy is announced in the story's headline: How an Affair Between a Reporter and a Security Aide Has Rattled Washington Media. The "affair" is what they want you to think about, and only the affair. Oh, a few members of the public might mention some other points, but almost no one invests a lot of energy in what are considered tangential issues. But I remind you, as I have had occasion to note in the past: "It's not the sex. It's never the sex." (I am sufficiently immodest to note that my analysis in that article, written only hours after the story of Petraeus's "forced resignation" first broke, proved to be entirely correct, including my comments in the concluding section about the likely future of one John Brennan.)

I emphasize that everything we are learning about this story is being told to us by the ruling class via its indispensable toady, the major media. From the point of view of the ruling class itself, the sex is of utterly no significance whatsoever (except for the banal point that they, too, regard sex as dirty and filthy, and want as much of it as they can get). But the ruling class knows full well that if they provide the distraction of sex, the public will enthusiastically run in the wrong direction. The ruling class engages in this venerable exercise in deflection because they know it works. They've seen it work many times before.

Therefore, our task is to shine the brightest light possible on the horrors they hope we will ignore.

It is delicious to contemplate the dilemma confronting The New York Times. The Times' hand was forced by the arrest earlier this month of James Wolfe, the former security director of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Wolfe was charged with lying to FBI agents about his contacts with several journalists. Wolfe's arrest revealed that one of the reporters, with whom he had numerous contacts over a period of roughly three years and with whom he had the affair, was Ali Watkins -- who had begun working for the Times in December 2017. Oops.

So the Times story from a few days ago is the newspaper's attempt to rigorously, candidly, and fully examine Watkins' career, including her relationship with Wolfe. But Watkins' career includes her current stint at the Times itself. How did Watkins come to work at the Times? How much did the Times know about her relationship with Wolfe? When and how did the Times come to learn what it says it now knows about Watkins and her history? Are we to trust the Times to tell us rigorously, candidly, and fully about its own role? The Times obviously thinks we should. In its story, the Times gravely informs us: "Avoiding conflicts of interest is a basic tenet of journalism." Well, maybe it's not that "basic," maybe it's not even a "tenet" (hey, they're just words), at least not when you're scrambling to save whatever is left of your credibility, along with your own ass. Whether what the Times is doing in its coverage of the Watkins story constitutes "journalism," I leave to the reader's best judgment.

Reading the Times story thus becomes an exercise in detection. We must strip away the layers of deceit and manipulation, along with a huge amount of self-delusion, we must identify the questions that remain unanswered, and the questions that are never asked at all. If we are genuinely alert readers, there are still additional complexities that must be taken into account. The Times informs us as follows:
This account is based on interviews with about three dozen friends and colleagues of Ms. Watkins and Mr. Wolfe, many of whom asked for anonymity to speak candidly about sensitive matters. Ms. Watkins declined to speak on the record, but she has shared many details of her experiences with others who spoke with The Times.
It is stating the obvious to note that each and every one of these "friends and colleagues" has loyalties, interests and an agenda of her/his own, all of which assume particular importance when the "friends and colleagues" are speaking to the Times for publication in a high profile story. Is the person a genuine friend of Watkins', who therefore wishes to portray her in the best possible light? Or is the "colleague" someone who is bitterly jealous of Watkins' "meteoric" rise through the world of D.C. journalism, and who would therefore like nothing better than the opportunity to damage her reputation and credibility, perhaps irreparably?

Since "many" of the Times' sources were granted the cloak of anonymity, we have no way to make any of these judgments. We must trust the Times to make these, and many other, determinations -- the oh-so-"disinterested," oh-so-"objective" New York Times, which just happens to be Watkins' current employer, and which more generally also just happens to be thoroughly enmeshed in the government-media D.C. cesspool. Hmm. (The Times notes that Watkins "declined to speak on the record." When other news organizations attempted to reach Watkins for comment, they were told that Watkins was away on a "pre-planned vacation," and therefore apparently unavailable. Now, now, don't laugh so uncontrollably. It makes you appear to be unkind, and it's not polite.)

(To be continued. I expect to complete the second part of this article later today or tomorrow. It's likely a third installment will follow. I'm just getting started.)