I don’t often say this, but good for the New York Times. As part of his job-saving-spinathon, Attorney General Eric Holder is inviting a bunch of Washington bureau chiefs to discuss the Department of Justice’s guidelines on snooping on reporters. The catch is that it is off the record. To that, the Times said to count them out. (Editor Jill Abramson released a statement: “We will not be attending the session at DOJ. 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.”) Soon thereafter the Associated Press also said it would attend only if the meeting was on the record.
Indeed, if the AG wants to talk law with media outlets about DOJ legal guidelines, he can invite their legal counsels. But bringing in the bureau chiefs to woo and plead and insinuate himself is not something the “adversarial” press should engage in. It’s news that he is forced to do it and whatever he says will be news. Why should any outlet, then, agree to let him talk off the record? I doubt media mavens have talked to former attorneys general in trouble (e.g. John Mitchell, Alberto Gonzales) off the record to let them bend their ear with no accountability for their remarks. What if Holder says something in the meeting at odds with what he told Congress or the court in the James Rosen matter? Oops — can’t report that.
This setup obviously wouldn’t be in the interest of getting a source who wouldn’t otherwise speak up. (That’s a leak, which, when it comes to national security, Holder has criminalized.) It’s not to allow an official to speak more candidly, but to allow Holder to be less candid with the public. Moreover, it taints future coverage, suggesting that positive items are pre-approved Holder items. (As was the case when a bevy of lefty journalists trooped over, several of whom wrote similar stories the next morning hyping Lois Lerner’s being placed on leave.)
To make matters worse, the ham-handed communications director of the Democratic National Committee, Brad Woodhouse, then took to Twitter to proclaim that any media outfit that didn’t show up would “forfeit” its right to complain. Buzzfeed describes what ensued:
“I think that what the Department of Justice is doing in soliciting comments … is in principle a good thing, but the suggestion that news organizations somehow give up their right to object by not accepting the invitation is a problem,” said Gabe Rottman, legislative counsel and policy advisor at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office. . . .
The ACLU’s Rottman defended the news organizations’ decisions.
“The notion that because news organizations have off-the-record rules which prevent them from going to a meeting like this in no way impacts the strength of their argument against the Associated Press subpoena,” he said. “That’s the biggest concern that I see here, that somehow they’re giving up their right to complain or object — that’s just wrong.”
The bottom line, the head of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press told BuzzFeed, is that “real issues” remain, regardless of how or whether the meeting proceeds.
The irony shouldn’t be overlooked: The administration can’t help itself from bullying the media, even when trying to lure them into a spin session.
This entire episode suggests the Times and the AP have it right. As bad as it is for lefty journalists to willingly allow the Obama administration to launder its talking points through their posts, columns and tweets, it is much worse for those who offer themselves up as objective journalists. The best way to prevent that from happening is not to participate. Staying away from self-serving, off-the-record spin sessions is a good place to start.
Moreover, if the other media outlets agree to go, the New York Times and the AP will be the only ones able to report on it. If nothing else, from the perspective of competitive business advantage it makes no sense for outlets to give their rivals a leg up on one of the hottest stories around.