Reporter Stumbles on a Scoop

Image taken by Kenneth P. Vogel for the New York Times: Ty Cob (right) discussing details of the Russia investigations with John M. Dowd, the President’s lead outside attorney at BLT Steak in Washington.

The image above was taken two weeks ago by New York Times contributor Kenneth P. Vogel. While it may not appear to be anything more than a lunch conversation between two men, the reporter realized that they were discussing sensitive information.

Vogel sat down for lunch with a source that Tuesday and shortly recognized that he and his companion sat adjacent to Ty Cobb and John Dowd. Cobb is a lawyer that the White House hired in July to coordinate responses to the investigations into the administration’s ties to Russia, and Dowd is the President’s lead outside attorney. In his account of the tale, he recalled the other times he had pursued news discovered through eavesdropping, but he had never overhead anything like this.

The two men were discussing sensitive information including the ongoing Russia investigations conducted by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, and congressional committees in addition to Trump’s strategy for responding. This included Cobb’s disagreement with the White House Counsel, Donald F. McGahn, regarding how to best respond to the mounting investigation.

Upon leaving the restaurant, Vogel consulted an editor and went ahead in pursuing the story for publication the following Sunday. The tensions between the two lawyers rose further when McGhan learned of the overheard lunch conversation between Cobb and Dowd.

A conversation held in a public place such as the one that transpired between Cobb and Dowd could have been overheard by anyone — it just happened to have been heard by a journalist. The use of information heard by accident in a public space is legal. The first rule of ethics according to The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) is to seek truth and report it.

The fourth estate includes those who report the news. Journalism checks those in positions of power, and reporting on the conversation he overheard, Vogel was within his ethical and legal rights. Vogel and the Times did what they felt was in their readership’s best interest. Despite the fact that the reporter came across the information in an unconventional way, it allowed him the “in” he needed to confirm his findings and verify this truth.