Sex isn’t the only way to spoil a news relationship

Sleeping with a source seems like such a transparently bad idea there wouldn’t seem to be much point exploring why journalists shouldn’t do it.

But with The Los Angeles Times summarily firing one of its top investigative reporters after he told his bosses he’d had a brief affair with an informant, it seems worthwhile to look at what the limits ought to be in the relations between journalists and sources.

Physical intimacy is only one of many powerful off-screen entanglements that can develop amid the mutual dependency that often arises between reporter and source. Few of them draw the same gut-level disapproval as extramarital sex, but many still have the potential to corrupt the work that the public sees.

In this case, the Times reporter, Jason Felch, had been investigating the alleged failure of LA-based Occidental College to comply fully with federal rules requiring it to report complaints of sexual wrongdoing on campus. Felch had written three stories on the subject and had accused Occidental of incomplete disclosure, asserting that allegations of 27 sexual assaults had wrongly gone unreported to U.S. education authorities.

Occidental didn’t address the substance of the stories before they were published, and afterward hired a PR firm to prepare a detailed response. It was presented to the Times in March, three months after the last story ran.

The school argued, persuasively, that Felch had misunderstood his data, and that the 27 unreported instances did not involve assaults at all, but instead covered a range of allegations—distasteful emails, for instance—that fell below the threshold of significance at which disclosure is legally mandatory.

It was, then, when his bosses confronted him with the apparent reporting errors that Felch told them about his romance. He says the woman hadn’t been a source since the beginning of their affair—a contention that conflicts with what the Times says he initially said. He also says the affair was brief and, by now, was over.

Still, the Times fired Felch—a 10-year employee and a onetime Pulitzer finalist—and editor Davan Maharaj said Felch’s failure to tell his bosses sooner of his “inappropriate relationship” amounted to “a professional lapse of the kind that no news organization can tolerate.” The core point: “Our credibility depends on our being a neutral, unbiased source of information in appearance as well as in fact.”

I’m always uneasy when decisions like this one are made with an eye to appearances, and the Times allowed the core question—was Felch’s reporting skewed by his affections?—to go unaddressed. Too bad, because as a matter of professional conduct (as opposed to personal morality), that’s the question that really ought to matter.

But that silence is unavoidable. Who can possibly know? That’s why sex has to be off-limits for reporter and source. It destroys any reasonable expectation that the source’s influence will be weighed fairly and dispassionately. Did the source offer sex as a way to make sure his or her account got greater weight? Did the reporter suggest that sex might be a way to ensure the source version of evens is taken seriously?

And what if sex comes to be seen as a routine part of the bargain, if potential sources understand they might be asked for favors in exchange for sympathetic treatment? How much harm might be done in a general way to the ever-imperiled flow of publicly significant information?

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In defense of Wikileaks

Suddenly, foreign news is back. In the past week or so, the long lamented decline in smart, well-sourced, insightful and provocative coverage of international affairs has done a 180. Overnight, the media are brimming with stories about global politics:

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