The woman who tried to sting The Washington Post also lied to me

Where do I know her from?

That was the question circling my mind as I read The Washington Post story Tuesday morning about a woman who lied to The Post about Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and appeared to be tied to Project Veritas, a right-wing organization that attacks the news media, government, nonprofits and others it perceives to be left–of–center via undercover sting operations.

Where do I know her from?

I kept glancing back at the woman’s photo; it was blurry and from a distance, but I thought she looked familiar. I listened to part of the audio conversation between The Post reporter and the woman and I knew I’d heard her distinctive voice somewhere before.

Where do I know her from?

I read the caption and her name struck a chord. I grabbed my phone off the desk, searched for her in my contacts and there she was.

Then I remembered.

I had just moved cross-country for my journalism internship at the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C. and I didn’t know anyone. So as any future-focused young professional, I decided to go to networking events, looking to meet people and make connections.

That’s how I ended up at an Investigative Reporters and Editors happy hour meetup on Sept. 14. That’s how I came to meet Jaime Phillips, although she introduced herself to me under a false name: Jaime Taylor.

I rushed over to the bar after work, just a couple blocks away from my windowless workspace in the heart of downtown D.C. I was excited to hang out with other reporters, maybe have a heated debate over cocktails about the virtues and vices of the Oxford comma.

She was the first person I met at the event; I remember thinking she was outgoing and passionate. Jaime told me she had recently left her job to pursue reporting and was in the process of starting her own investigative news website. Learning about journalism, Jaime said, was why she frequented events like this.

I don’t remember most of what we talked about but I do remember she was always asking questions. She asked me about being a reporter, about politics, about what I thought about the news. I didn’t think anything of her line of questioning. The bar was filled with reporters from The Washington Post, Atlantic Media, CNN, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other news organizations. As the event was dying down, I went out to dinner with a small group of reporters affiliated with Bloomberg BNA, McClatchy and Center for Public Integrity — and Jaime. We chatted over burgers and milkshakes and exchanged phone numbers, Twitter handles and Facebook friend requests.

I didn’t think about our interaction again until I read The Post article Tuesday morning. I’ve been racking my brain since. Nothing came out of my interaction with her, but now my mind is inundated with all the things that could have happened.

What if she had approached me with a story the same way she did with The Post? What if she had secretly recorded me and edited my comments out of context? What if she had used any number of tactics Project Veritas uses to embarrass me or damage my credibility or my employer’s?

It may sound dramatic, but the consequences could have been. A reporter is only as good as their name and names are easy to ruin nowadays. All it takes is one clip, one mistake, and your career is over — and that’s without someone actively trying to ruin you or your news organization.

In almost any other setting, I would have fact-checked and verified everything. Caution, skepticism, a penchant for hard facts and substantial proof: these are trademarks of a good reporter. But because I was in a networking setting, casually among colleagues in a comfortable environment where everyone was there to get to know each other, I accepted her claim to be another journalist.

I am writing this in the hopes that all reporters, not just those who are in the early years of their career like me, can learn from my experience. I got lucky this time, but it was a wake–up call for me. Sometimes I forget the lengths to which people will go to discredit news organizations. I definitely let myself forget that individual reporters, not just their organizations, are the focus of such attacks.

SPLC staff writer Emily Goodell can be reached by email, by phone at (202) 478-1926, or on Twitter @GoodellEmily.