The Media Image Of Leaks Coming From Morally Troubled Whistleblowers Is Taking A Serious Beating

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John Lott President, Crime Prevention Research Center
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Many members of the media act like leaks of government information are coming from whistleblowers who are compelled by their consciences to do the right thing. But over the last week, that image has taken a real beating.

It has recently surfaced that New York Times reporter Ali Watkins may have had an affair with James Wolfe, the former security director for the Senate Intelligence Committee. Wolfe is 32 years her senior. The New York Times is still investigating, but there appears to be a real concern that the “meteoric” and “stunning” rise of Watkins as a star reporter may have come about in part by using sex to induce Wolfe to give her classified documents.

It doesn’t help Watkins’s case that, in 2013, she asked her Twitter followers what they thought of using sex to obtain information. In reference to the House of Cards TV series, she posed the question: “So on a scale of 1 to ethical, how does everyone feel about pulling a @RealZoeBarnes for story ideas?”

The report released on Thursday by the Department of Justice’s Inspector General warns: “We identified instances where FBI employees improperly received benefits from reporters, including tickets to sporting events, golfing outings, drinks and meals, and admittance to nonpublic social events.” The DOJ report finds that such enticements likely led agents to leak information, and points out FBI policy’s “clear and unambiguous” intolerance for this.

James Wolfe has been arrested and the inspector general has indicated that charges may be brought against the FBI agents who leaked information to reporters. But no one has so far suggested going after the reporters, who are themselves criminally liable for bribing government officials. Reporters can use information volunteered by a whistleblower, but bribes are a completely different story.

So far nothing has happened to Ali Watkins, other than fellow reporters judging her for possibly sleeping her way to career-advancing stories.

To get convictions for the FBI agents, prosecutors just have to show that they leaked information. The Inspector General report notes that the FBI’s policy was “clear and unambiguous” about agents knowing these leaks were illegal.

While the report indicates that reporters’ bribes caused agents to leak, the case against the reporters might be more difficult to prove. Prosecutors would need to show that reporters engaged in a direct quid-pro-quo. Reporter could argue that the gifts were just them being nice to a friend, not being given in exchange for information.

Still, for the reporters who bribed the FBI agents, it shouldn’t be too hard to make a case. Did the reporter write off the gift as a business expense? Did the newspaper cover the cost? Were tickets and similar gifts given to people who weren’t sources for stories?

The Society of Professional Journalists is very clear when it comes to journalists paying for information: “The practice of paying for information, known as checkbook journalism, threatens to corrupt journalism.” And they have several reasons for this, among them being that a media outlet’s financial stake in the information they purchased may blind it to other conflicting information.

Just a few years ago, the Columbia Journalism Review, billed as “the voice of journalism,” assured everyone that “the dominant newsgathering culture here has considered it taboo,” and it warned of the “slippery slope” that had damaged journalism in the UK. So, if the government doesn’t punish the reporters who bribed the agents, will media outlets punish these reporters?

Double standards may not just be reporters versus agents. So far the big wigs seem immune. Former FBI head James Comey and his number two Andrew McCabe have clearly violated agency rules by leaking to reporters, and in Comey’s case his offenses have been known for a year, but they have yet to face any charges.

Let’s hope that it isn’t just the low agents who suffer the consequences. Those who offer the bribes and those who are the administrators are just as responsible.

John Lott is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author most recently of “The War on Guns.”

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.