Psst: I can hear you. And I'm a reporter
Did a journalist do anything wrong by writing about what he overheard in a public place?
Every journalist knows good stories don't just get handed to you. Even eye-widening tips have to be investigated and corroborated. But the New York Times' Kenneth Vogel must surely feel he's come as close as any journalist gets to having a front-page story handed to him on a silver platter.
"It was just happenstance," says Vogel, that he was invited to meet a source for lunch at Washington's popular BLT Steakhouse restaurant this month. It was the source who first recognized the two men seated at a patio table nearby.
"I continued to have my lunch conversation with my source, even as I was tantalized by the fact that these two guys are sitting next to me, and occasionally tried to listen in on what they were talking about."
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Those men, Ty Cobb and John Dowd, are two of U.S. President Donald Trump's lawyers. Vogel says it was quickly clear they were talking not just about their boss, but about tension between lawyers representing Trump personally and those representing the White House, over how much co-operation to give FBI investigators on the Russia file.
"This is actually a technique that I've used quite a bit. Because … it is discreet. It's not noticeable. Everyone's on the phone. All the time. So, for all they know, I was just responding to emails, or looking at Twitter, or what have you. But in fact, I was sitting there taking down notes from their conversation."
'No expectation of privacy'
Did Vogel violate their privacy? No, he says. Neither legally nor ethically.
"The legal terminology is 'expectation of privacy.' And there is no expectation of privacy if you're in a public place."
To be sure, the men did virtually nothing to protect their privacy. They were speaking so loudly as to be easily overheard, and Vogel didn't need to slide his chair any closer. He could hear every word from where he sat, as could anyone else seated nearby.
The pair showed remarkable "lack of sensitivity and care in handling this incredibly sensitive information," he says.
"That said, we did work very diligently to corroborate the information that we picked up from this. There were other aspects of the conversation that were fascinating, and I thought could be even more explosive, that we did not run. Because we were not sure of the context, and we were not able to independently corroborate — we're still working on that stuff."
In other words, stay tuned.
Also this week on The Investigators with Diana Swain, Vice Media's Justin Ling talks about why he believes the news media's coverage of the Trudeau government's proposed tax changes has been offside, and reporter Antonia Farzan of the Phoenix New Times explains how some employees of the Motel Six hotel chain got caught turning over a daily guest list to immigration officers.