holder Attorney General Eric Holder (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Yesterday some name-brand news organizations announced they wouldn’t be attending meetings with Attorney General Eric Holder regarding the Justice Department’s approach to snooping on journalists in leak cases. Among the holdouts were the Associated Press, the New York Times and the Huffington Post. Their gripe? The sessions planned by the Justice Department are to be off the record.

In a statement released to the Erik Wemple Blog, New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson said, “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.”

A most-pointed rebuke to the holdouts came from Brad Woodhouse, director of communications for the Democratic National Committee.

Asked to elaborate, Woodhouse wrote this, in part, to the Erik Wemple Blog:

My point was there has been a lot of discussion about how these investigations are conducted and now the man reviewing that topic wants input from all the stakeholders. It just seems to me if you are concerned about a problem and are invited to provide input on solving it you may want to avail yourself of that opportunity.

Counterarguments:

1) The media’s right to gripe is a First Amendment thing. It will never be forfeited under any circumstances, regardless of who decides to attend or dis a meeting with Eric Holder. Woodhouse appears to have backtracked a bit on this point.

2) Journalists don’t “solve” stuff. Woodhouse appears to be writing from the well-intentioned perspective that there’s a problem here, and Washington’s key people should get together and figure things out. That’s fine; they may do just that.

But the setup is dicey for reporters and editors. Think about the particulars: The Justice Department is holding these sessions as part of a “review of existing Justice Department guidelines governing investigations that involve reporters.” Which is to say that the off-the-record meeting in question isn’t like any other off-the-record meeting: It addresses a policy issue that has a direct impact on journalists. By walking into such a session, prominent Washington editors risk slipping into the role of lobbyists, pleading their case with federal officials in a private meeting. That happens all the time in these parts. Usually, though, the journalists are the ones on the outside looking in. Right where they belong, in other words.

3) Washington is already too unaccountable. Journalists won’t forfeit their right to gripe in general. If Holder gets away with this off-the-record thing, however, news organizations may forfeit their right to gripe about background and off-the-record briefings, which happen way too often around here.

4) Enough secrecy. There’s an important line in the Justice Department’s letter to the Associated Press regarding its secret subpoena for the wire service’s phone records. “Given the ongoing nature of this criminal investigation involving highly classified material, I am limited in the information that I can provide to you,” wrote Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole. Indeed, there are many legitimate secrets that the government needs to shroud from the public; one of them, however, is not policy discussion among a group of journalists and public servants.