Today Attorney General Eric Holder held a meeting — the second of three — with journalists from high-profile organizations including the ABC, The Wall Street Journal, and POLITICO, in order to discuss how to placate them during any potential, future Department of Justice wiretapping. Or something. It’s hard to know exactly what was discussed, since the meeting was off the record. This fact raised the hackles of several outlets including the AP (well, yeah, guys), The New York Times, CNN, and the Huffington Post, all of whom decided to officially skip the whole thing if they weren’t free to report on what was said.
CNN and Huffpo said they would certainly go if the meeting were on the record. And NY Times executive editor Jill Abramson said, “It isn’t appropriate for us to attend an off-the-record meeting with the attorney general.” Huffington Post Washington bureau chief, Ryan Grim added, “A conversation specifically about the freedom of the press should be an open one. We have a responsibility not to betray that.” Grim must not be a fan of the Obama administration’s long series of ironic moves designed to make their puffery about “openness” more and more hilarious. (One of the best was Obama accepting an award for transparency in a private meeting….)
Now ABC can dish on a few of the things that they are allowed to discuss:
Both ABC and Thompson Reuters representatives expressed deep concern over recent probes of the Associated Press and a Fox News reporter that occurred as the department investigated potential leaks of classified information.
Both ABC and Reuters expressed the need for change in the 1972 Department of Justice guidelines for issuing subpoenas to and investigating members of the news media.
“The meeting was productive. There was a frank discussion of the challenges facing both the government and the news media in protecting the public’s right to the free flow of information,” ABC’s [Washington bureau chief Robin] Sproul said afterward. “A good result would be modified Department of Justice guidelines that set a higher bar for when and under what conditions the government can subpoena journalists.”
I’m very happy for ABC that it was a productive meeting (POLITICO seemed a little less jazzed). But a terrific way to enhance “the public’s right to the free flow of information” might be for the public to be able to know exactly what was said in a meeting with a high-ranking official which included discussions with enormous implications for the freedom of the press in this country.
Also, much of the media is disinterested in protecting “unofficial” journalists, but the rules have changed in this here internet age — it’s not just the AP who deserves to have their phone records untapped. Arguably it’s worse with them, because of the chilling effect on investigative reporting. But what about the chilling effect on political dissent that might come from the allegation that every phone call in the US is being recorded? And much has been said about the Obama administration’s alarming war on whistleblowers, which is more or less another arm of its war on the press (only the press is a lot less interested in the former) but again — if the AP wiretapping is the Rubicon on acceptability, that’s great the press has finally had enough. But that line was there and ignored since, oh, let’s say the moment Candidate Obama voted for telecom immunity for companies that helped the Bush administration in their wiretapping. In short, we’ll see how long the press outrage lasts.
And it’s almost understandable that the media who declined to boycott would tell themselves that some information is better than none, but that’s how we got the media we have. It would have sent a much stronger message to Holder about his Department’s unacceptable behavior, if everyone had just stayed at home.