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Why the New York Times’ public shaming of Ali Watkins reeks of sexism

Why the New York Times’ public shaming of Ali Watkins reeks of sexism
[Photo: Flickr user Anthony Quintano]

Today the New York Times announced that it was reassigning politics reporter Ali Watkins to a new beat after an internal review. The Washington-based Watkins has been under fire over revelations that she had a personal relationship with a source who fed her information. This was discovered because the Justice Department seized Watkins’s personal communications in an attempt to crack down on government leaks.

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Instead of announcing her beat reassignment via a short statement, executive editor Dean Baquet wrote a lengthy memo, which was shared with staff and the outside world. “Typically, we would not comment on our findings concerning a sensitive personnel matter,” he wrote, and then continued to comment extensively on the very sensitive matter. Why? According to Baquet, it’s because of “the extraordinary nature of the case.”

That’s an interesting claim to make, especially when compared to what recently happened to New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush. About seven months ago, the Times was embroiled in another controversy, this time over a male reporter. Vox published a shocking exposé detailing Thrush’s alleged history of sexual misconduct with women–especially young reporters. The article went viral. In response, the Times first announced that Thrush was suspended, and then ultimately–like Watkins–assigned him to another beat. “While we believe that Glenn has acted offensively, we have decided that he does not deserve to be fired,” wrote Baquet in another, much shorter memo about his decision at the time.

While the disciplinary actions against Thrush and Watkins were similar, the Times and Baquet handled the cases very differently. One of the bigger divergences was in the way the paper itself covered the controversies. In Thrush’s case, the Times’s media reporter did write a few updates, but those stories focused mostly on what had already been reported, along with the news of his reassignment.

By contrast, the Times reporters really decided to dive into the Watkins case. One extensive piece delved into the sordid details of her affair, with three of her colleagues airing dirty laundry in an attempt to get ahead of a story. It described her relationship with the source, posted pictures of them together, interviewed past editors and friends, and described other past relationships she had. It focused very little on the chilling fact that the government seized a reporter’s personal communications, and instead went the low road of salacious, gossipy detail. No such article was written during the Thrush saga.

Baquet also treated the disciplinary announcements very differently. For Thrush, the statement was short–five paragraphs–and focused concisely on the issue at hand, and his reassignment. Conversely, the sprawling Watkins memo was nearly twice as long, touching on aspects of her personal life as well as the actions of her past employers. It drudged up some of the dirt the paper had already reported–for all her colleagues to read. And for what purpose? To shame her even more?

I reached out to the Times about the apparent discrepancy and will update if I hear back (Update: see below).

One line rings especially jarring from Baquet’s memo: “Ali is a talented journalist, and no one has challenged the accuracy of her reporting,” he wrote. “She has also made some poor judgments.” While the latter part is surely true, that first sentence is the buried lede. The Times examined her past work and found no problems. Does that warrant a public shaming?

It’s absolutely true that Thrush’s and Watkins’s cases are different for a variety of reasons. But the way the Times conducted itself illustrates a blatant double standard about how the paper appears to view the private lives of male versus female employees. The Times made an example out of Watkins; for Thrush, it merely quashed a public relations disaster as quietly as possible.

Update: A spokesperson for the New York Times writes to me via email, “we disagree completely with the premise of your piece.” According to the company, the two situations are “fundamentally different.” Per the email, here’s a rundown of the two situations:

One, Glenn Thrush’s, was the result of a thorough investigation by another news outlet, Vox. Upon publication of that story and given the seriousness of the allegations, Glenn was placed on suspension. We assumed the Vox story to be accurate and it was the starting point for our own investigation, which was thorough and exhaustive. At the conclusion of that investigation, a group of senior editors reviewed the findings and our executive editor concluded that Glenn should serve a two-month suspension (without pay) and be taken off the White House beat and reassigned. This news was made public and The Times reported multiple times on this internal story.

The second situation, the one involving Ali Watkins, resulted not from a piece of journalism published elsewhere, but from an indictment of a former staffer of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Ali is involved in that still-developing story about an FBI leak investigation that has broad implications for journalism, which was the reason for the Times news coverage of this story. Given some of the issues that were surfaced as a result of the indictment, an internal review was conducted so that The Times could more fully understand all aspects of Ali’s involvement in this story. Much of the review was conducted while Ali was on a pre-planned vacation. She was not suspended. As a result of the findings of this review, which again were reviewed by a group of senior editors, our executive editor made the decision that Ali would be reassigned to New York. We again announced this news publicly.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the length of Dean Baquet’s memo. We regret the error. 

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