It was a cozy reporter-source relationship in the extreme, a clear conflict of interest and a deliciously scandalous affair that produced gasps and gossiping among journalists. The editor--not just a lowly reporter--but the top editor of the Harvard Business Review had become romantically involved with the married former General Electric chairman, Jack Welch, after she interviewed him for a story.
Now, Suzy Wetlaufer did what journalism ethicists say you should do under such circumstances--she told her boss about the liaison before the story was published. But for a number of staffers, the revelation came too late, and her leadership was questioned. Wetlaufer's sex life became news in the Wall Street Journal, which broke the story in early March, and in other news outlets; she asked to be removed from her editorship; and Jane Welch--Jack's wife, who had called Wetlaufer to ask how the editor could write objectively about her husband given the affair – filed for divorce.
Certainly this case will long live in journalists' memories as a classic example of someone taking the reporter-source relationship to a different, and unethical, level. And there have been other moments in history when journalists' romances have become big news.
In 1977, Laura Foreman was ousted from her eight-month-old New York Times reporting job when it came to light that she had an ongoing intimate relationship with Pennsylvania state Sen. Henry J. "Buddy" Cianfrani, whom she had previously covered for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Inquirer editors, charged with having known about the relationship and allowing it to continue, assigned their Pulitzer Prize-winning team, Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, to investigate. The paper published their mammoth 17,000-word piece on Foreman, the affair and the newsroom – way too much information or not enough, depending on one's viewpoint. (Foreman and Cianfrani later married after the politico did time in jail for mail fraud and racketeering.)
In 1999, South Florida's Sun-Sentinel revealed that the father of tennis star Alexandra Stevenson was basketball great Julius Erving. Alexandra's mother, Samantha Stevenson, was a freelance sportswriter who had kept the father's identity and her 1980 love affair with the then-Philadelphia 76er a secret. Had the news not involved Dr. J and had Alexandra Stevenson not just advanced to the semifinals at Wimbledon, there might not have been such a flurry of news coverage, culminating in an interview with mother and daughter by (of course) Barbara Walters. Samantha Stevenson ducked Walters' question about journalistic conflict of interest. A number of women sportswriters lamented that her actions put all of them – who had fought against stereotypes that it was sex and not news that they were after--in a bad light.
It is possible that similar romantic transgressions have occurred in many a newsroom. Bob Steele, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, says he hears anecdotally about such things in his classes. "It's no surprise to me when we hear about a high-profile case about a reporter's involvement with a source, because I believe that these happen in a number of other instances when the nature of the relationship doesn't lead to an explosion," Steele says. "I think it's a serious issue. How widespread the problem is, I don't know."
Other ethicists and editors say that reporters romancing their sources is an issue they rarely face. But what many journalists do contend with is the larger and grayer issue of personal relationships bumping up against coverage responsibilities. What if a reporter dates a former source, for instance? What if it's not a source at all, but someone who could potentially provide information? What if a spouse could professionally benefit or suffer because of a reporter's coverage? What if there's no romance at all but a reporter and a source strike up a close friendship?
As journalism has focused much more heavily on its ethics and disclosure has become the mantra, a journalist can find his or her personal life wide open for discussion and scrutiny. What a journalist's spouse does for a living or whom he's just asked out on a date can be fodder for an ethical dilemma.
Other professionals face romantic conflicts as well, whether they're law enforcement officers, lawyers, psychologists or politicians. "It's important for these couples [whose jobs overlap] to respect the sort of confidential areas of their partners' work," says Deni Elliott, director of the Practical Ethics Center at the University of Montana. For journalists, "the other part of it is, yeah, when you've got an ongoing personal relationship, it's up to the reporter and the news organization...to keep that in mind in terms of the reporting."
Conflict of interest "is an epidemic in our society," says Ralph Barney, editor of The Journal of Mass Media Ethics. "The Enron thing was a conflict of interest" on the part of Arthur Andersen, the accounting and consulting firm. Political leaders can have a blind loyalty to their ideologies or their parties, he says. "So it's the kind of thing that media people need to, it seems to me, deal with pretty harshly."
While covering the police beat, one reporter at a midsize newspaper in the Northeast visited the station regularly, poking her head into offices to cultivate sources. She built up a good working relationship with one of the police officials, she says, because they would talk about subjects that had nothing to do with their jobs. "He was a source, but he was somebody I was friendly with," she says.
After she moved off the beat to cover local politics, the two kept in touch, and eventually the relationship took a turn. They went to see a play together. "It was just so much different from taking a source out for a beer," she says. "That's when I started to feel kind of funny about it.... I did for a second think, 'Oh God, what do I need to do here?'... That's about the time that I felt like I needed to talk to my editor about this."
Her editor said she could never write another story about the police. "He was very firm about it, and that was just fine with me," the reporter says.
Both the paper and the reporter followed the basic ethical rules: Disclose the relationship, and then remove the reporter from covering anything that involves or affects that source. Says the paper's editor: "You cannot legislate or regulate love in a newsroom, but...reporters that we hire...know that their job is to, number one, seek and report the truth and, number two, to maintain independence. And that you can't be independent if the person you're covering is on the next pillow. So, the reporters know that they should avoid conflicts and that they should act independently. Ethics are how you behave, and I believe in [this case] the behavior was professional."
The relationship was common knowledge in the newsroom and among many officials in the city. "I never wanted to be secretive," the reporter says. "I didn't want to wear the scarlet letter on my chest...but I didn't want to feel that I was hiding." No one, she says, questioned her credibility.
Unfortunately, that changed about nine months later when a police officer filed a legal claim against the city and the police department. Neither the reporter nor the paper was named in the subsequent lawsuit, but the plaintiff included an allegation that because of the reporter's relationship with the law enforcement official, the paper had obtained information unethically. (The suit, whose main allegation was sexual harassment in the police department, was dismissed.)
The editor and the reporter say the charge involving the newspaper is false, but true or not, the perception that something improper could have happened was now out there. "We did everything right," says the reporter. "Our credibility was questioned, and we did everything right." For a few days after the story of the lawsuit broke, television cameras followed her.
It was a painful experience, she says, and the four-year-old incident had an effect on how she interacts with sources. She may still get a beer with a source, but she's more cautious. "You trade some personal information sometimes," she says. " 'Where do you live?'... 'I had to drop my kids off today,' whatever.... And I'm always going to be very, very careful from now on in terms of to what extent I'm going to let that person into my life and vice versa.... I don't really want people to know personal things about me anymore, and I don't want to know personal things about them. And I guess that's the way it should be."
But the reporter-source relationship is an intimate one to begin with. Reporters want to be warm and friendly. They need trust, respect, rapport. A source may be giving them information that could cost the source his job. It's no surprise that, at times, these interactions turn to affection, whether it's a romance or a friendship.
"The nature of developing a relationship with a source is not unlike the nature of developing a relationship with a friend," says Baltimore Sun Editor William K. Marimow, a former reporter. While you don't want to have a friendship, you don't want to be cold. "It's impractical and I think inappropriate," he says, "to say, 'Hey we are not friends, this is an arm's length relationship.'... It basically alienates people" and turns an ideally natural relationship into one that's stiff.
Having a close yet distant relationship is a difficult dance.
Washington, D.C., is a small town. You'll make a new friend but soon realize you both know all the same people. It can be a bit cliquish.
And it's no different for Washington correspondents. "The truth is if you are a reporter in Washington...and an unmarried person," says Todd S. Purdum, New York Times diplomatic correspondent, "the people you meet are other reporters and political operatives and their aides and politicians. You don't meet a lot of nice dentists and cardiologists. You just don't."
Purdum, in fact, met a nice Democratic politico by the name of Dee Dee Myers. They started dating in 1995. She had stepped down as White House press secretary in 1994, about two weeks after Purdum began covering that beat. So she wasn't a source and had barely been one in the past, but still, he told his editor when it appeared the relationship was becoming romantic.
Purdum and Myers crossed paths at a book party and had dinner together a few times as friends. After a few months, Purdum says, "There was a moment where I thought this dinner that is happening tonight does not have the coloration...of a reporter-source relationship." It had a purely social "if not romantic context," he says. He told his editor, Andrew Rosenthal, and subsequently kept Rosenthal posted on his personal life.
Even though Myers had left the Clinton administration, Rosenthal says Purdum was right to tell him about the date. "It would be na´ve of me to say the situation did not carry that potential" for a conflict, he says.
Ultimately, other editors and reporters became aware that the two were dating. (As did almost everyone, since the connection was covered by the press.) Myers had been a very visible face and voice of the Clinton White House, which Purdum says made their relationship more of an issue even though she wasn't a source.
Rosenthal, now a Times assistant managing editor, says the paper's editors "did think about the issue of her having obviously worked for Clinton" and the fact that she engaged in political discussions with Republican adviser Mary Matalin on their CNBC show "Equal Time." But editors decided that Purdum's stories didn't have a bearing on Myers' interests, Rosenthal says, and that this didn't rise to the level of a conflict of interest.
Rosenthal says that one "could construct an argument that she was a prominent Democrat and he was covering a Democratic president" for whom she used to work. "But that kind of leads you down a path of madness." Does that mean Purdum couldn't date a Republican? Rosenthal asks. Does it mean all political reporters have to date independents? "You could just go crazy with it."
Purdum says he made a point of not writing stories involving Myers after they started dating, not a big challenge because she didn't figure into White House coverage by that point. The couple got engaged in the fall of 1996 and married the next spring. Purdum then embarked on a four-year stint as the Times' Los Angeles bureau chief, a move that he felt had the added benefit of getting him away from the capital. But Rosenthal says the marriage was not the reason Purdum, who returned to the D.C. bureau in 2001, was offered the position.
The Times Washington bureau has experienced other romantic entanglements that did require reporting rules. One reporter, says Rosenthal, is married to a State Department official. "He just never covers diplomacy in any shape or form." A few years ago, a reporter was dating somebody on the National Security Council. Rosenthal told the reporter, " 'Look, you can't cover foreign affairs' " or anything this person could benefit from.
Rosenthal's wife was a lobbyist when he was Washington editor. "I had to not get involved in making policy decisions in areas in which she was active."
In a Hollywood twist on the Purdum-Myers liaison, the NBC drama "The West Wing" once featured a sexual-tension subplot in which the female press secretary, C.J., exchanged flirty repartee and steamy kisses with a press corps reporter. "Everyone who's alive and breathing knows it's clearly based on us," Purdum says. "But that did not happen while I was covering the White House." Myers, who is a consultant to the show, says the idea for that particular story line "absolutely did not" come from her.
In "The West Wing" denouement, the pair didn't pursue a relationship, because they realized (well, the woman realized a bit more than the man) that their conflicting jobs meant love was out of the question.
The dilemma of whether a politically connected spouse or Saturday night date has a bearing on a Washington journalist's job comes up again and again. Purdum-Myers are part of a growing list of Washington match-ups. NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell dated Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan for 12 years before they were married in 1997. Also that year, Matt Cooper, now Time magazine deputy Washington bureau chief and then Newsweek deputy bureau chief, wed former Clinton media adviser Mandy Grunwald. And in what appears to be the year of love--1997--the dating life of CNN senior international correspondent Christiane Amanpour and Jamie Rubin, then assistant secretary of state for public affairs, appeared in the pages of the press, along with some journalistic grumbling that Rubin might be passing along tips to his girlfriend. The two were married the next year, and with time (and Rubin's departure from the State Department) conflict questions faded.
It's not unusual that a person's love interest will have something to do with his or her work. What should a couple do about such situations?
It depends. Deni Elliott, of the Practical Ethics Center, says if a longtime relationship is known and predates a reporting conflict, there's not necessarily a problem. There are a number of professions, she says, that require patient confidentiality, and one's spouse may have some knowledge of or connection to the patient. Such couples begin the relationship knowing that some topics are off-limits. In the case of journalists, it's then "up to the reporter and his editor to help that person steer clear of situations where he might end up covering his life partner," Elliott says.
Phyllis Jordan found herself laying down some ground rules in 1991 when she was covering the military for Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot. Jordan, now an editor at the Washington Post, was reporting on a court martial for a story about military justice. One of her sources was a Navy guy whom she "sort of liked."
She refused his offers to see a movie together until after the story ran. And when they began dating, Jordan told him she didn't want him to tell her anything that she could possibly use in a story. She also worried that her military stories could damage his job if his bosses wrongly assumed that he was slipping her information.
Now, Jordan is an assignment editor on the Post's metro desk. That Navy guy is her husband, who works at the Pentagon. She still doesn't want him discussing anything with her that other Post staffers might want to know. "He tries not to tell me anything, and I make a point if it's going to create a problem for him, not to share it with anyone at the newspaper."
Her marriage is of course common knowledge, but she didn't discuss their early dating life with an editor. "I felt like I was dating a Navy guy," she says. "And there are a lot of Navy guys in Norfolk." Now that she's an editor, though, she says she'd probably want a reporter in a similar situation to clue her in.
Steve Geimann, a member and former chair of the Society of Professional Journalists' ethics committee, says in some of these not-really-a-source situations, it's probably not mandatory that a reporter tell an editor. But he says it's a good idea to reveal more rather than less. "I'm always in favor of disclosure," Geimann says. A reporter should say to his editor, "I want you to know what's happening because I don't want to put myself or the organization in the position [for an outsider] to say, 'Aha.' "
So, in the interest of full disclosure, Geimann says that in the 1970s he dated a secretary in the city clerk's office in Binghamton, New York, where he was a reporter at the Sun-Bulletin. "She had no decision-making responsibilities," Geimann says. But "she certainly made it easier for me to get access to the city clerk that controlled papers and documents that I needed." The romance lasted three months, he thinks, and he didn't tell his editor. "She never gave me any stories, I didn't ask her to give me any stories, I didn't ask her to tip me on stuff when it was going on," he says.
If this had happened now and not 20-some years ago, though, he says he'd absolutely act differently. What has changed is that now, "There would be more comfort in talking [to an editor] about what's going on" because there's such a heightened awareness of ethics. Back then, he says, talk centered more on the bottle of booze in the file drawer.
Certainly, times have changed. In 1977, the Laura Foreman-Buddy Cianfrani connection became widely known when the FBI was investigating Cianfrani and questioned Foreman about gifts she had received from the senator. But in that Inquirer chronicle of the incident, some editors said they learned that rumors about the affair were true after Foreman left the local politics beat and was covering the 1976 presidential election. Their reaction was a "thank goodness she's no longer on that beat." It's likely editors would respond differently today.
There are no set-in-stone rules governing romance and work – probably because it's hard to dictate love and each situation is unique. SPJ's code has an "Act Independently" section that discusses conflicts of interest, but it doesn't go into detail about matters of the heart.
The main point that ethicists agree on is the importance of prompt disclosure. If a journalist and a source find themselves heading for Suzy Wetlaufer-Jack Welch terrain, they say, the reporter needs to tell an editor about the situation – immediately. "At the point at which you begin to have feelings for the person is when you need to have a conversation with an editor," says Geimann.
It's obvious in such a case that the reporter should be removed from the story, or under some circumstances the beat. But ethicists say the larger issue of what prejudices or feelings reporters bring to any story should also be discussed. "I believe a reporter, as well as photojournalists and line editors...copy editors, producers should have continuing, substantive conversations with their supervising editors about what feelings they bring to a story whenever those feelings may impact on accuracy or fairness or any of the other values that govern our work," says the Poynter Institute's Bob Steele.
Deni Elliott says newsrooms should have some guidelines about reporter-source relationships, but beyond that "newsrooms need to encourage reporters to continually examine themselves and the professional relationships they have with sources, subjects and others." Elliott says that "in every newsroom it ought to be safe for reporters to say to their editors that for one reason or another, 'I'm not the reporter who should be on this story,' " without having to disclose the nature of the conflict.
In terms of a romantic relationship, Louis Hodges, Knight Professor of Ethics in Journalism at Washington and Lee University, says it's wrong to become involved with the subject of a news story, but there's less of a problem if the source is not the subject. "If you get reliable information out of a source, that's the only concern," he says. And if a source continues to prove to be reliable, there's no conflict.
But Steele believes it's dangerous to think that romance produces good journalism. "I fear that in some cases," he says, "editors or news directors actually turn a blind eye to it, believing that the relationship between the reporter and source may produce tips, inside information and stories that are competitively advantageous. And that's a serious problem."
Other ethicists also see pitfalls in dating a source. A reporter's fairness and impartiality, and the appearance thereof, could be put at risk.
The Journal of Mass Media Ethics' Ralph Barney says the basic element in a conflict of interest is where a reporter's loyalty lies. "A reporter or an editor has a primary and basic loyalty to his or her audience," Barney says. "So if a reporter or an editor does something that either looks like or truly will take that loyalty away from the audience and put it somewhere else, then that's a conflict of interest that is largely inexcusable." And the perception of a conflict "is just as bad as having it, because it affects your credibility with your audience." While it eases the conflict issues, Barney says, "Disclosure doesn't help the perception."
No, it doesn't. The appearance of a conflict is hard to shed. The New York Times' Bernard Weinraub found how perception and reality are really one and the same when he tried to cover the film industry while married to Columbia Pictures President Amy Pascal. The two wed in 1997. Weinraub had recused himself from covering Columbia Pictures and Sony, the studio's parent company, and from articles that could affect the box-office success of individual movies. But, as a Brill's Content article in February 1999 pointed out, it was difficult to avoid all such coverage, and charges that Weinraub's situation was a conflict of interest came from Hollywood types and Hollywood journalists alike. In March 1999, he moved to the television beat.
Weinraub declined to be interviewed for this story. He told the Washington Post at the time: "If your spouse is running a studio, it's hard to fully cover an industry." The Post also said that Weinraub requested the move when he realized that if Columbia Pictures' films were nominated for Oscars, he wouldn't be able to cover the awards.
No matter that Weinraub and Times editors had said his coverage of the industry was fair. Ethicists say it's difficult if not impossible for a reporter to dispel the perception of competing loyalties under such circumstances. "You can't prove a negative," Steele says. "You cannot prove that your strong feelings don't compromise your work.... The public doesn't know what's left out of a story."
Geimann says as a reporter, he couldn't be the one to decide that he would still be fair. "I'm not objective in that decision," he says. "I'm biased in that decision."
Bill Keller, a Times columnist and senior writer for the paper's magazine, was managing editor in 1999 when Weinraub left the film beat. He agrees that one can't entirely eliminate a perception and, he says, "often the perception is a misperception about why a reporter does what he does.... In the case of Bernie, it was always about the perception. Nobody had the slightest doubt about Bernie's integrity."
But an appearance can be a real problem, Keller says. "And every story that you write [is] greeted with protestations about the reporter being in some way compromised. You reach a point where you've essentially given ammo to people who want to attack the paper or sow doubts about the paper's integrity." Does he think the Times was slow to react in the case of Weinraub? "Yes, I do."
The industry's efforts to continuously expose conflicts, discuss conflicts, rid itself of conflicts has made journalists acutely aware of instances in which romance interferes with the job. Some of those interviewed for this story cite other, seemingly disparate forces that could mean more perceived conflicts are on the horizon: More women hold high-profile reporting jobs as well as top positions in other professions; almost every couple these days is a two-income household; and media corporations keep merging.
That last one may seem a stretch, but not if you listen to Brian Lowry. The Los Angeles Times television reporter wrote a column in April 2001 revealing to readers that his wife had just taken a job as head of the UPN network's publicity department and, consequently, he would no longer write about UPN or its shows. Lowry went on to disclose that he had written two companion books to "The X-Files" and had recused himself from covering that series. As for anyone who feared he might now skew his coverage to somehow benefit UPN, he offered this: "UPN's principal competitor is the WB, which is part-owned by Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times. So theoretically, I have more interest in the WB being healthy--Tribune ultimately signs my checks, after all--than UPN any old day."
Tribune also owns KTLA-TV, which Lowry does cover, always adding a standard line to such stories that says, "KTLA is owned by the Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times." It sounds like there's not going to be much left for Lowry to write about without disclosing some possible conflict. He responds: "The truth is pretty soon none of us is going to be able to write anything without having the perception of a conflict hanging over us."
Lowry's concern centers more on corporate conflicts than affairs of the heart. But for a couple in which both partners have media-related jobs, things can get messy. "I think this stuff is only going to get worse actually as there's more consolidation, there's more assets under the same corporate umbrella," he says.
Small towns and small-town papers have always had a greater propensity to face such conflicts. Its not unusual, says Louis Hodges, to have a reporter married to a judge, for instance. Adds Geimann, "When you're in a small town...when do you meet people?... Very often when you're out covering a story." It takes discipline, he says, to say, "I'm not going to get involved."
But big-city newspapers face spousal conflicts as well. As the workforce of women has grown, it's more likely that many male reporters may face romance/work concerns. "I think more and more you're going to see this as [couples] face managing two careers," the Times' Purdum says. "You could be married to a person who is the head of a local hospital board.... You could be the editor of the newspaper.... You just have to be sensitive to these things on a case-by-case basis. I just think you need to be open about it."
Recently, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune moved two reporters off their beats because they had become too close to their sources. Not romantically involved, says Managing Editor Rosemary Armao. These are heterosexual male reporters and sources. But they had grown "too close and too chummy."
"It's difficult because you want a warm, friendly relationship, but not too friendly," Armao says.
This is the real worry, say editors and ethicists. It's easy to see when romance presents a conflict. What's more difficult is to recognize when a reporter's fondness for a source endangers his or her ability to be fair.
"That's a classic problem," says Jim Kent, news director at WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Virginia. Reporters have to cultivate sources and create relationships. "It's the old knowing where to draw the line, and a good reporter will know...and say, 'I can't be objective about this one.' " Kent says such cases do happen occasionally.
How do you decide where to draw this fuzzy line? Elliott says the world of therapy provides a good model. A good therapist, she says, "can really connect with her clients but, at the same time, can keep professional distance." Similarly, reporters need to connect with a source but maintain their professional judgment.
For Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., maintaining these relationships isn't that difficult. He says there are many examples of "good beat reporters who know their sources really well but yet have made it clear to them that [that fact]...is not going to change the way that they're going to approach the story, and in fact they're respected by their sources for that."
If reporters do confront any potential problems while working on a story, they should talk to their editors, says Steele. "Those concerns and challenges certainly include when a reporter has any personal feelings toward the source of the story, whether those feelings are one of romantic connection or in some cases, the opposite – anger, or even maybe hatred in some cases."
"Talking about your feelings" may sound a little hokey and against the traditional grain of a newsroom, but many editors do say this is a vital concern.
"I think it's unrealistic to say that reporters and sources aren't going to become friendly, particularly if it's a long-term relationship," says Jody Calendar, former managing editor of the Record of Bergen County, New Jersey, and former deputy executive editor of the Asbury Park Press. "I think at times, human nature being what it is, there will be some sort of friendship, some sort of bond between the two. However, if both [the reporter and source] proceed ethically and objectively, then I think you're really all right."
When does it go too far? "When the reporter feels the friendship starts to interfere with the integrity of the [journalist-source] relationship," she says.
"That's when you have a problem."
That's much, much more difficult for a reporter or an editor to recognize and deal with than a romance.
Walter Kiechel, editorial director of Harvard Business School Publishing, says Suzy Wetlaufer did the right thing in coming forward about her affair with Welch. But questions remained about her ability to lead the Harvard Business Review. "We weren't certain that being in a relationship with Jack Welch was compatible long-term" with being editor of the publication, he says.
Ultimately, in late April, Wetlaufer resigned her position, which paid $276,000. She said that the controversy became "distracting" and affected her ability "to work to my full potential."
Kiechel says there has never been a similar situation at the Review. But the incident has prompted him to assign a task force to draft a revised ethics policy that will include guidelines about relationships with authors (95 percent of the Review's content is written by freelance writers) and other constituencies. He agrees that the bigger issue is the danger of developing friendships, not romances. "I think it's a huge one," he says. "We've talked about that even before [the Wetlaufer] situation."
There are two schools of thought, he notes. One believes that journalists should befriend sources--"flying on the aircraft with the CEO, sitting at the same table with the CEO, best of all, being invited over to his or her house." The other school of thought is that becoming close to a source can taint the objectivity of the reporter.
"You certainly hear more about the first view"--the celebrity editor who believes he or she is part of the crowd a publication covers, he says. But "that's never been part of the rationale of the Harvard Business Review."