No One Should Attend The 'Off-The-Record' Session With Eric Holder

The Department of Justice would like the Washington bureau chiefs of various and sundry media outlets to attend an off-the-record meeting with embattled U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to discuss "the Justice Department’s guidelines for dealing with journalists in leak investigations." The Huffington Post is one of many media organizations that have officially taken an "get on-the-record or GTFO" stance, while a few organizations have indicated that they will attend. NBC News is, as of this moment, on the fence. My colleague Michael Calderone is keeping a running tally of who's in and who's out.

That said, everyone should just decline the opportunity to have this secret chat with Eric Holder about the Justice Department's bespoke approach to the "freedom of the press." Unless, of course, one of the attendees plans on going and then tossing the "off the record" rule in the garbage, which in my estimation would be an okay thing to do. Media organizations that conflate "journalistic ethics" with "bullshit political niceties" are conspirators in their own demise. So, you know, go right ahead and burn Eric Holder as a "source." What's he going to do? Petulantly deny you "access." Feh, who cares?

There are a number of good reasons for media organizations to avoid participating in this silly bavardage session with Holder. My bureau chief, Ryan Grim, cites the overarching principle guiding his decision: "A conversation specifically about the freedom of the press should be an open one. We have a responsibility not to betray that."

That is 100 percent true, but there are compelling practical reasons to not attend, as well. Chief among them is the fact that sessions like this make it impossible for those in attendance to carry out their duty to serve the public interest in a manner that doesn't utterly confuse the public. Erik Wemple lays out the absurdity:

What will likely happen here is a classic and most absurd game: Attendees at the meeting — both media reps and Justice Department officials — will give rundowns to reporters who were not in attendance, likely on background (i.e., for publication but without their names attached). News pieces will be pieced together on such sourcing. The low point: Reporters could well end up quoting their own bosses as “sources.” A total embarrassment, in other words.

McClatchy Washington bureau chief James Asher puts it even more simply: "[Off-the-record meetings] don't help inform the public."

Which, let's face it, is probably by design. Wemple has, in two posts, collected various statements from various administration officials discussing the purpose of this cloaked-up kaffeeklatsch, and it's not hard to read between the lines. In one, an anonymous Justice Department official (!!) says that the meeting will be a "candid, free-flowing discussion" for the purpose of "bring[ing] about meaningful engagement."

Elsewhere, DNC communications director Brad Woodhouse -- who hilariously contended that participation in the meeting was mandatory to any press outlet that wanted to contine harboring grievances about the way the White House conducts its weird source witch-hunts -- says that the meeting is for media types who are "concerned about a problem" to "provide input on solving it" and that everyone should "avail [themselves] of that opportunity."

"I don't see how refusing to attend helps solve anything," said Woodhouse. To which Wemple responded: "Journalists don't 'solve' stuff."

That's the point I'd like to elaborate on, actually. The way this off-the-record session is being presented (it's an "opportunity" to have "engagement!") is, at its base, a false frame. What's going on between the Department of Justice and the media, writ large, is that the DOJ has made the affirmative choice to seize the phone records of Associated Press reporters -- a seizure so sweeping that AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt has contended that the DOJ essentially claimed a complete "'road map' to its whole news-gathering operation" -- and brand Fox News reporter James Rosen as a "possible co-conspirator" in an effort to violate the Espionage Act. Which, it should be pointed out, the DOJ did insincerely. Per Alex Pareene:

Rosen wasn’t charged. In truth, the government never really intended to charge him. They just needed a judge to agree that Rosen probably violated the Espionage Act so that they could get their warrant to read his emails, as part of their real investigation into his source, an intelligence analyst named Richard Kim. It worked. That’s the scandal: that the government could charge a journalist with, effectively, spying, simply for reporting.

This is not a matter about which the press needs to have a "dialogue." This isn't a situation that calls for an "opportunity" to have a "frank exchange." To suggest these things, as the aforementioned officials have done, is to imply that somehow the Obama administration and the media have just sort of mutually wandered off course somehow. A relationship went south. Everyone's off on the wrong foot, and we just need to clear the air. Let's all sit down and rap about it, and maybe everyone can meet in the middle.

With this "let's get all the stakeholders in a room together to have an encounter session" environment having been set in advance, the media outlets that participate will be essentially saying, "We're partially responsible for fixing this situation." That's not something they should be admitting. There's no compelling reason for the media to give ground here. Rather, what media outlets should do is simply demand that DOJ officials either transparently provide a rationale for the actions they took, or transparently explain how they will alter their behavior going forward. If the DOJ refuses to do either, then the media outlets involved will simply have to accept that this is the "new normal," and adapt to it.

But it should all be done out in the open.

One thing I'd like to make clear is that just because organizations like the Washington Post and ABC News have run their calculus and determined that they will attend the session, this doesn't mean that anyone should necessarily believe that their representatives are going to be acquiescent, or even receptive, to the DOJ's case.

But those who do attend run the risk of being perceived as having endorsed the DOJ's position by dint of the way the "off-the-record" rule restricts them. Right now, what the DOJ wants is to be able to come out of the room and talk about how there was a "frank and constructive exchange of ideas" and the "discussion is ongoing," while simultaneously preventing those in attendance from publicly disclosing whether or not the exchange really was frank or constructive and attributing specific statements to specific individuals.

Believe me, if the DOJ has sincere, heartfelt intentions of being "constructive," it would cheerfully be constructive in full view of the public, because why would it want to keep the wraps on that? Instead, we have a situation where the DOJ official who is insisting that the off-the-record "format will best facilitate the candid, free-flowing discussions we hope to have in order to bring about meaningful engagement” will only say that "on the condition" that he or she "not be named."

If the person promising "meaningful engagement" won't put his or her name to that contention, it's as good a sign as any that the engagement won't be meaningful.

So screw that. Do not attend this off-the-record session.

[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]

Eric Holder In The Hot Seat