The Washington journalism establishment —which allows federal officials to go off the record every minute on the minute — got a little picky this week after Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. invited reporters and editors over for an off-the-record meeting about the Department of Justice’s handling of the investigations of national security leaks to Fox News Channel and the Associated Press.
New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson sent her pithy regrets: “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.” The AP sent a similar snub, as did CNN, McClatchy Newspapers, the Huffington Post, CBS News, NBC News, Reuters and Fox News.
“If the government wants to justify its pursuit of journalists, they ought to do it in public,” McClatchy’s James Asher said.
What made the face-off so delicious was the way it pitted two self-righteous and pompous entities against each other. On the one side, you’ve got the government, which wanted to keep secret the thinking behind its devious — but legal — series of subpoenas and search warrants directed at journalists, while still blabbing about it. On the other, the press, which swoons for these sorts of sit-downs as long as the meeting isn’t public knowledge, because such revelation makes them look like suck-ups and collaborators, which they can be.
Had Holder stealthily invited a couple of bureau chiefs and editors over to his place for afternoon cookies and milk to ask for their help in getting out of his PR pickle — of appearing anti-press — I’m sure most would have obliged him and maintained the requested omertà. But that wasn’t the attorney general’s strategy. In order to relieve the anti-Holder political pressure the press has exerted in the past two weeks and the calls from several corners for his resignation, Holder needed to publicize the soiree. The purpose of the meeting was not to explain or apologize or promise to change Department of Justice policy. The purpose of the meeting was to have a meeting, and to begin a “dialogue” with the press over its “concerns” so the press would give Holder some breathing room.