The dustup over whether journalists should meet privately with Attorney General Eric Holder is a forest-for-the-trees flap.
The existential issue still tangling Washington in knots a dozen years after 9/11 is how to balance our primal need to protect U.S. security with our fundamental belief in civil liberties.
Six months into a second term, President Obama seems to realize that he and his predecessor let the pendulum swing too far. The president is recalibrating the so-called war on terrorism and reconsidering its shadowy tactics, including the use of drones and the methods for investigating people who leak national security secrets.
That brings us to the Holder-media issue. While being the ultimate inside-baseball story, it does highlight the Obama administration's ignorance of the media's role in Washington as well as the malpractice that permeates its communications operation.
How the administration handles a micro issue like this may have a negative impact on the existential struggle. A forest, after all, is a gathering of trees.
The basic facts:
The Justice Department seized telephone records at the Associated Press as part of an investigation into the leak of a foiled terrorist plot. The media spying was unprecedented in its scope and in violation of the department's own guidelines.
In a separate leak investigation, the department monitored the e-mails and whereabouts of a Fox News reporter. In a warrant application, Holder's team labeled the reporter a criminal coconspirator.
Under severe criticism from journalists, Republicans and even his liberal allies, Obama expressed concern over the potential intrusion on First Amendment rights and ordered Holder to review department policies.
As part of that review, Holder asked to meet with Washington bureau chiefs of major news organizations Thursday and Friday. This is where it gets sticky: He insisted that the sessions be "off the record."
In Washington, there are three forms of attribution.
On the record means the official being interviewed by the media will be quoted and identified by name.
On background generally means the information provided by the official can be broadcast and published, but the source's identification will be protected by the reporter. The Associated Press Stylebook, the gold standard on such questions, recommends that anonymity be granted only in cases when there is no other way to get the vital information, and the information is a matter of fact, not opinion or partisan spin.
Off the record generally means the information cannot be shared with the public. "Off the record" is (or should be) rarely used in Washington because it puts a reporter in the position of a priest: Keeping the government's secrets.
By tradition, conversations in Washington are on the record unless the journalist and the official mutually agree to other terms.
Unfortunately, many reporters confuse or abuse these terms. First, news stories (including some of my own) are littered with "blind quotes" from officials granted anonymity to settle scores, disseminate talking points, or opine.
Second, unethical reporters play games with ground rules. Howard Dean, a former governor, presidential candidate, and Democratic Party chairman, complained on MSNBC's Morning Joe that journalists habitually conduct conversations "off the record" and later attribute the information to an anonymous source, a violation of the source-reporter agreement.
Political figures also confuse and abuse the terms. When journalists cede their authority to negotiate the terms of a conversation or briefing (which happens far too often in Washington, a subject for a separate post), government and political operatives spin, distort, demagogue, and even lie "on background" and "off the record"--knowing their names won't be attached and thus they won't be held accountable
Hopefully, this is enough background to explain the many reasons why bureau chiefs should meet with Holder only "on the record"--with every detail made public and attributed to the attorney general and his guests.
- This is important stuff. The debate over balancing liberty and security needs to involve the public, and not be limited to a handful of government officials and the media elite.
- The media's fundamental job is to shine a light in the darkest corners of government. If we stand for anything, it's transparency and accountability. Meeting secretly with Holder borders on hypocrisy.
- The public's trust in media is already at an all-time low. Among the many reasons for the justified lack of faith is the perception that journalists curry favor with the elites rather than hold them ruthlessly accountable. A private meeting with the attorney general can't help the lap-dog reputation. It would also fuel paranoia of conservatives who are convinced that the media is "in the tank" for Obama.
- Though a relatively minor consideration, bureau chiefs compromise themselves and their newsrooms by meeting privately with Holder. Each chief has a team of reporters under orders today to find out what happened at the meetings. The chiefs can help their reporters with details of the talks, but that would violate the ground rules. They can keep their mouths shut but risk blowback from their teams when competitors report meeting details. There will be leaks; officials on one or both sides of the table will tell reporters about the conversations. So why not face that reality and conduct the meetings openly?
- There is an uncomfortable irony in the fact that an attorney general investigating his policy for spying on the media is asking the media to keep his words secret.
- It could be argued that no self-respecting journalist would meet with Holder under ground rules that forbid pressing him on his veracity. In congressional testimony, the attorney general said that he had never personally been involved in the potential prosecution of a journalist who disclosed sensitive material. Congress needs to determine whether that statement is at odds with the disclosure that he approved the Fox News warrant.
- Obama's team still doesn't get it. One wonders why the media would trust Holder's motive given how the administration has conducted itself so far. The most recent case in point: When The New York Times and AP announced that they would not meet with Holder "off the record," Democratic Party spokesman Brad Woodhouse tweeted that the decision "kind of forfeits your right to gripe." Well, no--it doesn't. Woodhouse was treating the media like a political opponent: Attack, distort, and deflect. He probably didn't realize the Orwellian implications of his wisecrack. Even the liberal ACLU took issue with it.
Stepping back from the trees, the broader debate is not about whiny reporters. It's not even about George W. Bush or Obama as much as it is about precedents for the next president.
It is a fair bet that history will look favorably upon Obama if he leads us to a post-9/11 paradigm that keeps American safe and protects our liberties--if he can ease us off a constant war footing.
But he needs to go about it right. Small things matter in the big picture. Obama might want to ask Holder to explain himself at a town-hall meeting. Not with bureau chiefs, but to the public at large. On the damn record.