Holder’s Off-the-Record Meetings with the Press: A Ploy Intended to Make a Public Relations Point

Attorney General Eric Holder (Creative Commons-licensed Photo via US Embassy in New Zealand)

Attorney General Eric Holder, Deputy Attorney General Jim Cole and other Justice Department officials held two planned off-the-record meetings with the press on Thursday and Friday. At the moment, details from the Friday meeting have yet to be publicized by media executives or representatives who attended, but there are numerous details from the Thursday meeting that have surfaced.

The meetings were held to respond to outrage from media organizations around the Justice Department’s seizure of journalists’ records and the investigation of Fox News reporter James Rosen, who was labeled an “aider, abettor and co-conspirator” in a leak allegedly committed by a State Department contractor named Stephen Kim.

The Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the New York Times, Fox News, Huffington Post, McClatchy, and Reuters all decided not to attend a meeting because they would be held off-the-record, while the New York Daily News, New Yorker, Politico, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal each decided to participate in Thursday’s meeting.

Apparently, as the Post’s Sari Horowitz wrote, Holder pledged to “take concrete steps to address concerns that the Justice Department has overreached in its leak investigations and said officials would seek procedural and possibly legislative changes to protect journalists’ First Amendment rights.” But, Holder could not say what exactly those procedural changes will and will not be.

During the meeting, participating media executives “reached an agreement with the Justice Department under which they could describe what occurred during the meeting in general terms.” That they would need permission from Holder to discuss the Obama administration’s attitudes around policies and procedures that have profound implications for freedom of the press is a sad statement on establishment media organizations.

James Warren, Daily News Bureau Chief, described how “press representatives” pushed Holder “to consider internal department changes that might prompt greater discretion and avoid what the media feels can be overly broad subpoenas.” There was a “forthright and civil back-and-forth” that “saw the two sides also discuss possible changes in laws relevant to seeking subpoenas of journalists’ phone records and emails.” Yet, they reiterated a favorite administration talking point, that “they seek a balance between protecting national security and honoring the role of a largely unfettered media in a democracy,” which media outlets are undoubtedly tired of hearing, especially since the administration’s record suggests that is not really true.

Politico offered a summary of the meeting, which included an anonymous quote from one of the five journalists at the meeting. It was further evidence of how some of the media organizations had decided to be fully compliant with the Obama administration in these meetings:

The guidelines require a balance between law enforcement and freedom of the press, and we all argued that the balance was out of kilter, with the national security and law enforcement interests basically overwhelming the public’s right to get information…The language concerning ‘aiding and abetting’ comes out of the Privacy [Protection] Act, and they discussed trying to revise that language so that reporters don’t need to be defined as co-conspirators in order to execute search warrants.

In other words, if the administration could do it all over again, they would not label Rosen a “co-conspirator” but they would still investigate him as if he were one. Anyone who finds this to be a reassuring “shift” is desperately searching for a silver lining.

Why did multiple news organizations decline to participate? Times executive editor Jill Abramson stated, ahead of the planned meetings, “It isn’t appropriate for us to attend an off the record meeting with the attorney general. Our Washington bureau is aggressively covering the department’s handling of leak investigations at this time.”

Abramson was worried it could have a negative influence or lead to news coverage being biased, which is a remarkable admission when one considers that these kinds of off-the-record meetings between the press and those in power can happen often and the regularity is why Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron argued it was okay to attend.

As quoted by CNN, Baron said, “People in the press frequently have off-the-record discussions with newsmakers. This is not unusual in any respect.” In fact, “Many of the organizations that chose not to come also participate in off-the-record discussions.”

McClatchy Washington Bureau Chief James Asher told Poynter that off-the-record meetings “don’t help us inform the public. He added, “This one seems designed mostly to make a public relations point and not a substantive one. If the government wants to justify its pursuit of journalists, they ought to do it in public.”

By holding it off-the-record, the Justice Department could privately explain their actions and urge journalists not to report on what was said. The explanations could give the media a window into the department’s thought process behind what was done, even as they admitted they could have done what they did better. Based on reports, the executives or representatives likely agreed to keep this sort of information confidential.

Democratic Party spokesperson Brad Woodhouse tweeted, as organizations were indicating they would not attend, that this “kind of forfeits your rights gripe.” Other Democrats like Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who once served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, have appeared on television to recycle administration talking points. Van Hollen said on MSNBC’s “Jansing & Co,” “There are questions about whether or not these investigations were conducted in the most sensitive way…but the reality is the White House, the executive branch, all of us, have an obligation to make sure that important and sensitive national security information that can put lives at risk is not leaked, and we can do that, I think consistent with the very important First Amendment right and the rights of the press.”

The Hill reported that former senior adviser to Obama, David Axelrod, who is now a regular on MSNBC, said on “Morning Joe,” “Holder didn’t need to resign and said the attorney general shouldn’t even apologize for the aggressive surveillance of Fox News reporter James Rosen because he ‘was carrying out his responsibilities.'” He changed his tune, as he had said last week, “I do think there are real issues regarding the relationship with the media on this leak matter.”

The Republicans are overselling the extent of malfeasance in the case of Rosen and gunning for Holder to be fired. They’re alleging he committed perjury when he testified before a House Judiciary Committee. Those flimsy allegations are giving the Obama administration and Democratic operatives adept at defending the administration the cover to give whatever vacuous comments on television they want and obscure how these investigations represent clear threats to freedom of the press.

Notice, conspicuously absent is MSNBC or NBC News Corporation. Maybe they have special access to the White House and already have shared what limited concerns they have about the Justice Department.

What is really likely to happen as a result of these meetings and the review? Charlie Savage of the Times reports an “adviser familiar with the deliberations” over what to the Justice Department should do has suggested a tightening of rules on “when prosecutors may seek phone logs and other information that could identify reporters’ sources.” An expansion of the “requirement for high-level review of proposed subpoenas for reporters’ phone records so that it would include emails” and “whether to tighten a standard for when officials may seek such records without giving prior notice to the news organization” are also being considered.

Yet, the administration has conducted reviews before to appease critics and not done anything meaningful after the review. Holder ordered a much more significant review of the abuse of detainees by the administration of President George W. Bush. A special prosecutor was even empowered to look at instances where the CIA committed torture. What became of this was nothing. Absolutely no person was held accountable and the only person remotely related to the CIA rendition, detention and interrogation program who went to jail was CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou, who the CIA and Justice Department began to pursue after he spoke about waterboarding on television in 2007.

These meetings are not likely to lead to any meaningful change. The result of the review will, at best, advocate for cosmetic changes. The administration will still push a media shield law re-introduced in Congress that has a broad national security exception that would not have protected Rosen’s privacy. Actions will continue to favor national security agencies over journalists’ right to freedom of the press.

The Obama administration understands what is at stake here: the ability of government to control the flow of information and maintain the secrecy it wants to govern without being scrutinized. Whatever adjustments the Justice Department makes will be carefully calculated so the administration still has maximum authority to pursue leaks investigations as it puts in place guidelines to forestall any actions that could lead to outrage among the press. So, in that respect, media organizations, who wisely chose not to participate, are likely to be vindicated as it becomes more and more clear this was some public relations operation put on by the Obama administration.

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