News & Politics

'A Disgusting Smear of a Reporter': BuzzFeed News Editor Warns DOJ's Latest Attack on the Press Is Deeply Troubling

The Justice Department's decision to seize a journalist's communications records sparked widespread criticism.

Photo Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Samuel Guerra

The Justice Department's seizure of email and phone records from New York Timesreporter Ali Watkins sparked widespread criticism and fear of an attack on the First Amendment when it was revealed on Thursday.

As the case has moved forward, BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith is arguing that the department's tactics are truly concerning — particularly with regard to the treatment of Watkins.

Watkins was swept up in the investigation of James Wolfe, a former staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee, for supposedly leaking classified information. He was indicted Thursday night for lying to the FBI — not for leaking — but Watkins, who had a relationship with Wolfe, featured in the indictment.

“The way the indictment is written is clearly aimed at launching a disgusting smear of a reporter, and it has had that effect,” Smith told the Washington Post. He was Watkins' boss when she worked at BuzzFeed, and he defended the integrity of her work.

Andrew Kaczynski, a CNN reporter, agreed: "The Trump administration actions here — besides showing their disregard for press freedom — has had the effect of launching some disgustingly sexist harassment of a reporter."

The Post suggests that Watkins' relationship with Wolfe may have created conflicts of interest, particularly when she worked at McClatchy, because she reportedly didn't inform the outlet of the relationship. She did inform the New York Times, where she now works, before she was hired.

But these issues are not relevant to the government's interest in the matter — and any sense that the federal agents are going after a specific reporter could be deeply chilling to a free press.

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Cody Fenwick is a reporter and editor. Follow him on Twitter @codytfenwick.