Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron, Wall Street Journal Washington bureau chief Jerry Seib, New York Daily News Washington bureau chief Jim Warren, New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer and Politico Editor-in-Chief John Harris attended an off-the-record meeting with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Thursday evening in Washington, D.C.
Holder called the meeting to discuss how his department’s guidelines for investigating news organizations following revelations of ham-handed investigations involving Associated Press and Fox News reporters.
AP, Fox News, The New York Times, McClatchy, CNN, CBS News, Reuters, The Huffington Post and NBC News all declined to attend, citing the department’s insistence on the meeting being off-the-record.
Baron told AP’s Pete Yost: “It was a constructive meeting,” and said DOJ “expressed their commitment to the president’s statement that reporters would not be at legal risk for doing their jobs.”
Holder and other officials present “said they were open to changing the guidelines the department uses to broaden the circle of officials who have to agree that subpoenas are justified as a last resort,” Devlin Barrett reports in The Wall Street Journal. “The officials also said they were open to annual reviews with news organizations, according to a Wall Street Journal editor who attended the meeting.”
“Those ground rules were later adjusted,” Barrett writes; “Justice Department officials agreed that the journalists could discuss publicly and in general some of the ideas that were discussed,” Politico’s Dylan Byers reports.
The flurry of not terribly difficult-to-figure-out quotes from journalists and officials who attended the meeting in these reports underline how weird Washington “ground rules” have become. Surely if there were ever a time to speak on the record, it would be in regard to a meeting about how the DOJ will adjust its guidelines for pursuing records from journalists who speak to anonymous sources.
Alongside some other excellent arguments for keeping the meetings on the record, National Journal’s Ron Fournier points out that “The public’s trust in media is already at an all-time low.”
Among the many reasons for the justified lack of faith is the perception that journalists curry favor with the elites rather than hold them ruthlessly accountable. A private meeting with the attorney general can’t help the lap-dog reputation.
Charlie Savage writes in The New York Times that DOJ has considered revising its investigative guidelines before:
In 2003, for example, a group of lawyers representing The Associated Press, Gannett, The Washington Post and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press worked with Patrick Kelley, then the acting general counsel of the F.B.I., to develop a proposal.
The media lawyers eventually submitted a draft text and section-by-section analysis to the F.B.I. But after the 2004 election and turnover at the Justice Department, the Bush administration lost interest and dropped it, according to David Schultz, a media lawyer who led the informal project.
Another meeting is scheduled for Friday, and USA Today, Bloomberg News, ABC News and the Los Angeles Times/Chicago Tribune reportedly plan to send representatives.