The Reporter and the Diplomat: Anatomy of an Ethics Train Wreck

Gina Chon, who handled the Iraq beat for the Wall Street Journal, “quit under pressure,” a.k.a. “was fired”, yesterday after it had been discovered that she had carried on  a romantic affair with Brett McGurk, a high-placed American official, while both lived in Baghdad in 2008. McGurk was on the National Security Council staff during the Bush administration and has been nominated by President Obama to be ambassador to Iraq.  Chon was covering McGurk’s activities while she was also romantically engaged with him, a cardinal ethics sin for a journalist. She also shared “certain unpublished news articles” with him, also a violation of Journal policy and journalism ethics. The relationship had been hidden by Chon, and only came to light when racy e-mails between the two were revealed. Of course, the fact that they had recently divorced their respective spouses and married each other probably should have been a clue.

This is a full-fledged ethics train wreck, and it is not over yet.  Let us review the participants so far:

Typical of ETW’s, the coverage itself was ethically flawed. The Washington Post story about the Chon-McGurk affair appeared in the Post’s Style section, which covers media, entertainment, and gossip. McGurk is the current Obama administration nominee to be Ambassador to Iraq, a key post. This was the last line in the Style story:

“The disclosure has intensified doubts about McGurk’s nomination for ambassador among some Republican members of the Senate, but the Obama administration has stood by him.”

That’s the real news, however. That should have been the lead in a story in the front section; maybe not the front page, but think about it: the story says that the e-mails between McGurk and Chon “joked” about trading sex for access. Here is an unfolding scandal about the lack of discretion and trustworthiness of Obama officials regarding sensitive information and the flood of leaks coming from the administration, some of which endanger U.S, security, and the Post publishes it along with a story about a spelling bee, beneath “Book World.”  These damning revelations about Obama’s hand-picked ambassador to Iraq surface, and the administration is standing by him? How can such a diplomat be trusted? What kind of an administration would trust him with so critical an assignment? I’ll answer that: an incompetent  and amateurish one. Thus the most important ethics violation in the news story is buried at the end, and the violator is the President of the United States. He has indignantly denied that leaks come from his staff, yet this is the kind of foreign diplomat he thinks is qualified to serve.

As for the Washington Post, what pathetic and suspicious editorial judgement! This is an election year, but even in a non-election year a Presidential nominee being embroiled in a sex scandal calling into question his trustworthiness and reliability is news, not Style section fluff. I’m really trying, guys: my loyal liberal readers keep assuring me that such editorial choices in the news media are the result of stupidity and incompetence, not bias. I’ll give the Post the benefit of the doubt here, but when you’re a paper with the influence and credibility of the Post, incompetence is almost as unethical as news manipulation.

Brett McGurk’s ethical shortcomings are easy to identify, and I’m not even including the fact that he cheated on his wife, which, thanks to Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton, no longer appears to be regarded as a character disqualification in Washington. He was in Iraq to do a job, not to fool around. For all he knew, Chon was sexually manipulating his trust to get a story, rather than compromising her coverage to get a new husband. His conduct was reckless and irresponsible. Thank goodness his President doesn’t regard these as character disqualifications either.

Gina Chon, as well as McGurk, adopted the despicable Woody Allen’s despicable motto, “The heart wants what the heart wants.” Woody used that rationalization to betray his more-or-less wife and sleep with his more-or-less daughter; Chon used it to betray her profession, her employer, and the public. A journalist has to be objective, and sleeping with your subject doesn’t lead to objectivity. What should she have done? As soon as she found herself even attracted to McGurk, she should have told the Journal, and taken another assignment. She couldn’t do her job objectively at that point, and by not disclosing her conflict, she added dishonesty and lack of candor to her ethics offenses.

Let me add that “Woody’s Excuse” is not an excuse for unprofessional and unethical conduct, any more than it is for marrying one’s adopted daughter. We have free will. We know our obligations. When we have professional duties, we are not justified in compromising them because our hormones are flowing, bells are ringing, the Four Aces are singing and love is in the air. Yes, “it happens.” For ethical professionals, it still can’t happen in ways and in places that compromise professional duties.

Finally, this story, and the fact that journalism mavens interviewed by the Post shrug off the fact that “this happens all the time,” is another in the long chain of black marks against the ethics and professionalism of American journalism. A lawyer who has affairs with his clients, judges or opposing counsel is called an unethical lawyer. An executive who has affairs with his rival executives or employees is called a former executive. A psychiatrist who has affairs with his patients is a sexual predator. Reporters who can’t resist the impulse to get romantically involved with their subjects are rotten and unethical journalists, and if this “happens all the time,” that is an indictment of the ethics of their profession.


Source: Washington Post

Graphic: Movie Goods

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at


6 thoughts on “The Reporter and the Diplomat: Anatomy of an Ethics Train Wreck

  1. Pingback: The Reporter and the Diplomat: Anatomy of an Ethics Train Wreck … « Ethics Find

      • Give me a break. All of a sudden FireFox won’t let me write or edit posts, which means I have to use Microsoft Explorer. On that browser, the type is about 8-pt…I can barely read what I’m writing. Plus WordPress told me to dump my cache to fix the problem (it didn’t), and now I can’t access my Facebook page, Facebook refuses to send me a password reset, and I’m in internet Hell. I’m about ready to chuck it all and become a monk.

        • I hope you’re using Internet Explorer (the web browser) and not Microsoft Explorer (the file viewer). On a more useful note, Ctrl++ increases font size in IE. Ctrl+ reduces font size.

          Also, I’m going to start using e-nails for all v1@gra ads I receive.

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