Tradition of Reporters Sleeping with Sources Still Alive and Well at the New York Times

Former New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal famously said, "I don't care if my reporters are fucking elephants, as long as they aren't covering the circus." Someone tell Raymond Hernandez, who covers Congress in D.C. while dating a congressional spokesperson.

Hernandez works for the Metro desk out of the paper's Washington bureau, where he reports on the doings of members of Congress from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. We learned from a tipster today that he is dating Shrita Sterlin, the communications director for Rep. Edolphus Towns, a Democrat representing parts of Brooklyn including Fort Greene and Bedford-Stuyvesant. Sterlin gets paid to make Towns look good, a task that's presumably made considerably more easy when the guy who's supposed to cover him for the most important newspaper in local politics is your boyfriend.

It wouldn't be the first time that a Times reporter jumped in the sack with a source or a flack: Rosenthal's famous admonishment was coined when it was revealed that Laura Foreman was sleeping with a Pennsylvania state senator while she was reporting on him at the Philadelphia Inquirer (she lost her Times DC bureau gig as a result); Judith Miller lived with Rep. Les Aspin in the 1980s while quoting him in her stories; Hollywood correspondent Bernard Weinraub began dating Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal while covering her as a reporter (and carved out a rather byzantine arrangement allowing him to keep his job by purporting not to write about anything that would affect Sony's interests); former Clinton White House correspondent Todd Purdum ended up marrying former Clinton White House spokesperson Dee Dee Myers; Washington correspondent Jason DeParle married Nancy-Ann Min (now DeParle), then a Clinton White House staffer; and of course Maureen Dowd, who covers political fantasies for the paper, dated political fantasist Aaron Sorkin.

Surprisingly—and contrary to Rosenthal's dictum—the Times doesn't categorically forbid its reporters from getting romantically involved with the people they cover. The paper's ethics policy simply requires them to disclose any relationships to their boss and recommends a case-by-case approach:

26. Romantic involvement with a news source would create the appearance and probably the reality of partiality. Staff members who develop close relationships with people who are likely to figure in coverage they prepare or oversee must disclose those relationships privately to a responsible newsroom manager. In some cases, no further action may be needed. But in other instances staff members may have to recuse themselves from certain coverage. Sometimes assignments may have to be modified or beats changed.

According to the Philip Corbett, the Times' assistant managing editor for standards, Hernandez has played by those rules:

Ray and Ms. Sterlin have been dating for some time. Ray disclosed this to his editors at the outset, as we would expect, and the situation was fully discussed with them and with the standards editor at the time, Craig Whitney. Ray and his editors have taken care to ensure that he does not cover any stories directly involving Representative Towns or his office.

We are satisfied with these steps, and confident that there is no problem or conflict in this situation.

Corbett didn't say when the relationship began, or when it was disclosed, but the last time Hernandez mentioned Towns in a story was September 8, 2008. Other Times reporters have written about Towns on 34 occasions since then. So it certainly appears that Hernandez has been taken off the Towns beat. And back when he was covering Towns, Hernandez didn't tread too lightly: Here he is writing about tensions in Towns' district after the congressman failed to endorse Barack Obama in the Democratic primary, and here he is catching Towns and others driving gas-guzzling cars at taxpayer expense.

The heart wants what it wants. But it's not like simply not mentioning Towns' name solves any problems that can be presented when reporters date the flacks of the elected officials they cover. Hernandez may not be "directly" covering Towns, but he is the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform; his fortunes as a leader in the Democratic Party and the New York delegation are ultimately intertwined with those of the other officials Hernandez writes about on a daily basis. You may have heard, for instance, that every member of Congress the House will be up for re-election in a year. If enough Democrats lose, Towns will lose his chairmanship. So his communications director has an interest in seeing to it that all Towns' Democratic colleagues keep their jobs next November. Does her boyfriend? To continue Rosenthal's unfortunate metaphor—and with no disrespect to Ms. Sterlin, whom we don't mean to unflatteringly analogize—Hernandez is still covering the circus. He's just not covering the particular elephant he's, um, dating.

But the Times has adopted a convenient fiction in pretending that Congress has distinct rings that can be cordoned off one by one. Towns is one of 435 members of the House who spend their days cutting deals with one another on everything from legislative language to parking spaces. Hernandez may not mention Towns by name anymore but there's an interconnected web of favors and grudges which he now has to either ignore or avoid interfering with. Neither case sounds very plausible.

Perhaps the Times' readers would be better served by a single dedicated reporter covering Towns, rather than the patchwork quilt of fill-ins and wire stories they've used since Hernandez stopped: The Wall Street Journal scooped the paper last August with the revelation that Towns, who had been refusing to subpoena documents about Countrywide's "VIP" mortgage program in his committee, was himself the recipient of a VIP mortgage from Countrywide. The Times didn't catch up with that story until October.