Some assignments are genuine dream jobs, like being an ambassador in Paris or a news bureau chief in Tahiti. If I decide to open a financial planning office in Maui, I’ll have plenty of volunteers to staff it.
How about being a reporter or a diplomat in Baghdad in 2007? Iraq was wracked with sectarian violence that resulted in at least 25,000 civilian deaths that year, and no place in the country - not even the Green Zone inhabited by top-level American diplomats and Iraqi government officials - was secure. The excitement and importance of such work attracts a certain hardy breed of folk, but most of us would rather drive our air-bag-equipped cars home every evening, to relax in climate-controlled comfort with a big screen and a beverage.
What about Port-au-Prince in the immediate aftermath of the Haitian capital’s 2010 earthquake? Does this sound like paradise to you? Me neither, even if I could have avoided the cholera outbreak that followed the quake.
Gina Chon is one of those hardy souls drawn to such places. She covered Baghdad for The Wall Street Journal from 2007 to 2009. Then she went to Haiti to report on the earthquake before returning stateside to write about mergers and acquisitions.
Chon no longer works for The Journal. Her bosses demanded her resignation a few weeks ago, after the release of some mildly racy emails that showed the journalist had a relationship in Baghdad with a high-level U.S. diplomat, Brett McGurk, whom she later married.
Chon was not the apparent target of the email leak; McGurk was. He was President Obama’s nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq. His nomination appeared to be sailing through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when the emails made their mysterious appearance on a couple of little-known websites, from which they made the customary hop to the mainstream media.
Soon after, six Republican senators on the committee made known their displeasure with McGurk’s candidacy. With 10 Democrats and three additional Republicans on the panel, McGurk could have retained enough support to at least get a confirmation vote in the full Senate, but the White House would have had to devote significant effort to backing its nominee. Apparently the administration had other priorities. McGurk withdrew his nomination on June 18, six days after Chon resigned her position with The Wall Street Journal.
McGurk’s withdrawal was a disappointment, but at least we can understand why it happened. He was a nonpartisan public servant in what is becoming an absurdly partisan town. This left him with no base of support, since simple public service earns few brownie points nowadays.
As recounted by Slate.com, McGurk is a former clerk to the late Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist. He served as head of Iraq and Afghanistan affairs for the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. He was also an adviser to the last three U.S. ambassadors in Iraq, the most senior of whom, Ryan Crocker, was an outspoken backer of McGurk’s ambassadorial nomination.
But Democrats did not particularly care for McGurk because of his advocacy of Bush’s surge strategy in Iraq, which turned the tide of the insurgency over said Democrats’ strenuous objections. Republicans, or at least enough of them, were prepared to abandon McGurk over his subsequent service to the Obama administration, the perceived lapse of his involvement with Chon, or both.
The career corps in the State Department’s foreign service apparently had no particular love for McGurk, either, as he did not come up through its ranks. Someone with access to the State’s email database had the foresight to preserve the potentially damaging emails that McGurk and Chon exchanged circa 2008. We have heard a lot about the administration’s determination to investigate leaks, but there has been no news from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or from Attorney General Eric Holder about any inquiry into the torpedoing of McGurk’s diplomatic posting.
Chon and McGurk might not be excellent candidates to become church deacons. Each was married to someone else when they became involved with one another in Iraq. Their emails, with references to blue balls and masturbation, are not the sort of thing one ought to put in a government email database. On the other hand, it probably wasn’t as easy to maintain a private email account in war-torn Baghdad as it would have been in, say, Manhattan or Washington, D.C. Meeting at the Starbucks on the corner is not much of an option when there is no Starbucks on the corner - and when just getting to the corner means potential contact with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, car bombs and suicide vests.
So why, exactly, was the reporter fired?
Here is the explanation offered by her former employers: “Wall Street Journal reporter Gina Chon agreed to resign this afternoon after acknowledging that while based in Iraq she violated the Dow Jones Code of Conduct by sharing certain unpublished news articles with Brett McGurk, then a member of the U.S. National Security Council in Iraq.
“In 2008 Ms. Chon entered into a personal relationship with Mr. McGurk, which she failed to disclose to her editor. At this time the Journal has found no evidence that her coverage was tainted by her relationship with Mr. McGurk.”
So she failed to tell her editors about her “personal relationship” with a potential source and (less-likely) story subject. (McGurk was scarcely known outside government circles.) She might have shown some unpublished stories to her knowledgeable and newly significant other. And yet there is “no evidence that her coverage was tainted.”
Let’s take those points in reverse order. First, untainted coverage is a good thing. No cause for dismissal there.
Next, if showing an unpublished story to a significant personal contact is a violation of journalism ethics at all, it is about as severe as jaywalking. I might show this column before publication to my journalist daughter to get her reaction, or I might show it to my wife just because I value her opinion. Being self-employed, I can do what I want, of course, but these actions would be equally harmless if I were writing for a national newspaper.
Finally, as for Chon not telling her editor about her blossoming wartime relationship - well, it’s really easy to sit in comfort in lower Manhattan and judge the behavior of someone who risks her life every day to bring us the news. If Chon had written a puff piece about McGurk without disclosing the relationship, the newspaper might have had cause to discipline her, but she didn’t.
As for McGurk, there is no evidence whatsoever that he leaked any secrets to Chon or that he abused his position to help her do her job, which was in any case not inherently in conflict with his own. They were both in Baghdad to serve you and me, in their own ways. As Chon explained in an email to friends, his banter about sneaking her into meetings (how would you “sneak” someone into a meeting?) was really about bringing her to the embassy cafeteria for ice cream. A typical summer day in Baghdad, by the way, can reach 120 degrees.
People who combine the talents and courage of a Gina Chon or a Brett McGurk do not grow on trees. That does not make them saints or place them above criticism, but it certainly ought to give us pause before we toss aside their skills without good reason.
Chon and McGurk will be just fine. There are plenty of other jobs out there for them, and in McGurk’s case, at least, the pay will be a lot better. The big loser in this story is, as is often the case, the public that is deprived of their services.
The winners are the desk jockeys who showed how important they are by successfully smearing Chon and McGurk and pundits like The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, who described Chon’s failure to report her indiscretions to her editors as a “job-ending breakdown.” To them, I say: Go ahead, folks. Take a victory lap around the Keurig machine. You earned it.