Eric Holder's Off-the-Record Summit with the Media Is Now on the Record

The Atlantic
Eric Holder's Off-the-Record Summit with the Media Is Now on the Record
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Eric Holder's Off-the-Record Summit with the Media Is Now on the Record

Too bad that the meeting between various media entities and Attorney General Eric Holder discussing the subpoenas of media entities was off-the-record. That means we're left with only a handful of detailed reports of what happened in it (not a lot) and only a few anonymous sources reporting on what comes next (to be determined).

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Holder's invitation/olive branch was extended to Washington representatives of various media outlets in an effort to stem the public relations damage done to his reputation and agency. Revelations that the Department of Justice had subpoenaed a broad swath of phone records related to the Associated Press and issued a search warrant naming a Fox News reporter, James Rosen, as a potential co-conspirator in an intelligence leak met with fierce criticism from the media. And from the president's Republican opposition, of course; Senator Ted Cruz of Texas yesterday deemed the Rosen accusation to be "without precedent," and "part and parcel of a pattern of this administration of not respecting the Bill of Rights."

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Holder's request for an off-the-record meeting — intended to discuss revisions to Justice's media investigation policies, perhaps assuaging those Bill of Rights concerns — was quickly rejected by a number of news outlets. The Huffington Post's Michael Calderone polled companies and listed those who declined: The New York Times, the Associated Press, the Huffington Post, CNN, Fox News, NBC News, Reuters, CBS News, and McClatchy. With a somewhat smaller group — Politico, the Washington Post, Daily News, New Yorker, and the Wall Street Journal — the meeting went on.

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And, thanks to that Politico attendee, we have a clear sense of what happened. The organization's media reporter, Dylan Byers, reports on the discussion in an article titled "Eric Holder to media: I get it."

At the session, Holder and Deputy Attorney General James Cole expressed a willingness to revise the guidelines for such investigations, journalists present at the get-together told POLITICO.

But Holder stopped short of offering any concrete changes to the guidelines.

"Holder also indicated," Byers later continues, in his story about the off-the-record meeting, "that the decision to label Fox News reporter James Rosen as an “aider and abettor” in a criminal investigation wasn’t necessary." 

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The story also quotes Byers' boss, the Politico guy in the room.

“[Holder and Cole] said they are reaching out to editors and counsels for news organizations about how to strike what they called ‘the balance’ between protecting the flow of information and journalists’ ability to do our jobs and what they described as national security damage,” said POLITICO editor-in-chief John Harris, who was present at the meeting.

And then another "journalist at the meeting," who said that the group "discussed trying to revise [existing] language so that reporters don’t need to be defined as co-conspirators in order to execute search warrants."

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If this seems like a fairly loose definition of "off-the-record" — it is. In a separate article, Byers notes that "Justice Department officials agreed that the journalists could discuss publicly in general some of the ideas that were discussed during the course of what otherwise an off the record meeting." Which ideas and what specifics didn't end up in the press is left to the imagination.

Despite not being one of the attendees, the Times managed to wring 1,100 words out of the gathering and Holder's push for revised rules around investigation. The paper cites sources in the room for its report; since there were only five people there, it's possible that the Times' sources overlap with Politico's.

Mr. Holder began, they said, by acknowledging criticism that the Justice Department had tipped too far toward aggressive law enforcement and away from ensuring the free flow of information to the public. He expressed a broad commitment to update internal guidelines, including steps to reflect changes in technology since they were written three decades ago.

Such an update, according to "an adviser familiar with the deliberations" granted anonymity by the paper, could include creating a requirement that the attorney general be required to review subpoenas for emails as well as phone records. As it stands, the policy only requires such a review for "telephone toll records." This is an important point for efforts to suggest that Holder lied under oath during testimony earlier this month. If he reviewed the Rosen search warrant, which it appears likely that he did, it could strengthen the argument that his statements to the House Judiciary Committee were duplicitous. (The Department of Justice released a statement yesterday downplaying the suggestion.)

Both the Times and Politico make clear that nothing was cemented during the conversation. If the goal was for media outlets to offer feedback on Justice policies, that apparently occurred — at least from a small number of media outlets. If the goal was to develop revised procedures or to rebuild relationships between Holder and the press, that probably didn't. If anything, it provided another chance for the press to lambaste the Justice Department. If the goal was to have a private conversation in which the government and the media could discuss meeting mutual needs, that didn't happen at all.

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