National Journal’s Ron Fournier has been on a Justice Department-accountability tear. At issue: Attorney General Eric Holder intends to meet this week with the Washington bureau chiefs of various news organizations, and word is that the session will be off the record. Fournier doesn’t like the plan:
Re Holder convening bureau chiefs on leak probes: He may ask that meeting be off record. Chiefs should decline, record and report.
— Ron Fournier (@ron_fournier) May 29, 2013
Takes just 1 chief to declare mtg open and recorded. Let Holder decide whether to leave or be quoted. Don’t negotiated. Just file.
— Ron Fournier (@ron_fournier) May 29, 2013
The Erik Wemple Blog has reached out to top editors at six Washington-centric publications. By posting time, we got feedback from three.
Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, said, “I prefer that any meeting be on the record. That said, journalists routinely participate in off-the-record sessions, whether they prefer those conditions or not, and then continue to report on events. I am going to this meeting in order to represent our interests as journalists and to raise our concerns. I’ll also listen to what the Attorney General has to say. I trust that our journalists will report on this as vigorously as they would any other subject.”
The New York Times, however, will not participate in the session, said Editor in Chief Jill Abramson. “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,” she added.
And Ryan Grim, the Washington bureau chief of the Huffington Post, said, “Off-the-record would not fly. … I don’t need to go in there with a tape recorder and wiretap the meeting. But I imagine I’m free to talk about what’s said in there.”
Talk, perhaps. Publish? That’s another matter. A Justice Department official confirmed to the Erik Wemple Blog that two meetings of Washington bureau chiefs on Thursday and Friday would be off the record. Another round of discussions will pull in media executives and counsel under the same off-the-record ground rules. What it all means is that the folks in attendance can’t emerge from the meeting and write accounts of the meeting’s ins and outs.
Asked why on earth the meeting about media stuff between media people and the government would be off the record, this Justice Department official responded with a statement, on the condition that the official not be named: “This format will best facilitate the candid, free-flowing discussions we hope to have in order to bring about meaningful engagement.”
Not to mention minimal public enlightenment. What will likely happen here is a classic and most absurd game: Attendees at the meeting — both media reps and Justice Department officials — will give rundowns to reporters who were not in attendance, likely on background (i.e., for publication but without their names attached). News pieces will be pieced together on such sourcing. The low point: Reporters could well end up quoting their own bosses as “sources.” A total embarrassment, in other words.
On the bright side, the “off the record” stipulation doesn’t mean that media types cannot discuss the existence of the meeting. Phew!
Here’s the full statement from a Justice Department official on the proceedings:
Attorney General Eric Holder will hold meetings with several Washington bureau chiefs of national news organizations in the next two days as part of the review of existing Justice Department guidelines governing investigations that involve reporters. This review, which was announced by President Obama last Thursday, is consistent with the Attorney General’s long standing belief that protecting and defending the First Amendment is essential to our democracy. These meetings will begin a series of discussions that will continue to take place over the coming weeks. During these sessions, the Attorney General will engage with a diverse and representative group of news media organizations, including print, wires, radio, television, online media and news and trade associations. Further discussions will include news media executives and general counsels as well as government experts in intelligence and investigative agencies.
UPDATE 8:25: The AP is also staying out of the fray, on account of the off-the-record ground rules.