Bob Davis: Off-the-record, and in an odd place
Jun 02, 2013 | 3746 views |  0 comments | 74 74 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Lots of official sources prefer to not leave fingerprints on controversial topics. I can tell you what you need to know, they’ll promise reporters covering a hot story, if you will keep my name out of the paper. Instead, the story will cite “a source who spoke on condition of anonymity” or “a senior official.”

Journalists shouldn’t accept these bargains lightly. Without a name and title attached to a juicy quote, the news organization has put itself as the source. If the information is unreliable, the anonymous source doesn’t pay a price, the journalists with egg on their faces do.

Politicians (and under that title I would include their senior staff and appointees) prefer a controlled world where image is highly prized. When crisis strikes, they are prone to do what they can to survive the scandal and keep their image intact.

Which brings us to Eric Holder, the U.S. attorney general who is facing all sorts of questions about his agency’s monitoring of journalists’ phone records and email traffic.

Last week, Holder offered to meet with representatives of various news organizations. There was only one hitch — all of the AG’s remarks had to be off-the-record.

No dice, said many news organizations, including The New York Times, the Associated Press, CNN, Fox News, McClatchy Newspapers and others.

Off-the-record meetings “don’t help us inform the public,” McClatchy Washington bureau chief James Asher said Thursday. “This one seems designed mostly to make a public relations point and not a substantive one. If the government wants to justify its pursuit of journalists, they ought to do it in public.”

On the other side of the argument are journalists who agreed to Holder’s terms. Washington Post editor Martin Baron said he would attend “in order to represent our interests as journalists and to raise our concerns.”

“We diplomatically raised our concerns — don’t know what’s going to happen if anything,” Jim Warren, Washington bureau chief of the New York Daily News, told the Associated Press after a meeting with Holder on Thursday. “Who knows what’s going to happen if they practice what they seem to preach and try to change some laws that we feel are very relevant. I think it’s sort of an opening gambit.”

I tend to side with Asher and others balking at the off-the-record meeting. If Holder wants to defend the actions of the Justice Department in pursuing whistleblowers and the journalists who talk to them, then he should speak up.

It’s important to recall why Holder is offering to meet with Washington reporters. In mid-May, the Associated Press reported that the Justice Department had in 2012 secretly gathered two months of phone records belonging to AP journalists. About a week later, it was learned the FBI had snooped around in the phone records and an email account belonging to a Fox News reporter, James Rosen.

We are led to believe prosecutors weren’t targeting journalists, a First Amendment red line that’s rarely crossed by the government. Instead, the Justice Department was pursuing leakers, government employees who were sharing sensitive information with journalists. If this feels like familiar ground, it should. Politicians, who don’t like secrets getting out, squared off against journalists who generally believe a more informed public makes for a better democracy. (And, yes, there are exceptions for truly sensitive information that would compromise national security.)

This stalemate will remain the case regardless of what the attorney general says, on or off the record.

We find ourselves in an odd place. For the past five years, the Obama administration has divided the country. Supporters believed the president would be a different sort of politician, one who could help the nation past the excesses of the Bush administration. Opponents were convinced Obama would destroy the United States, either willfully because he a kind of Manchurian candidate or out of supreme incompetence. Either way, this president would be worse than all his predecessors.

As it appears now, the Obama administration has zealously gone after those who would leak sensitive information and in the process entangled journalists in this pursuit. If true, that would make Obama not all that different from other presidential administrations.

Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or @EditorBobDavis
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