Washington-based news organizations are refusing to meet with Attorney General Eric Holder to hear his explanation of how and why the Justice Department secretly spies on journalists after Holder insisted that the meetings themselves be secret.
The New York Times, Fox News, the Associated Press, CBS, CNN, Reuters, Huffington Post and McClatchy Newspapers all announced Thursday that they would not meet with Holder because the meetings to be off the record, which means those participating could not report what was said or done. News agencies were scheduled to meet individually with Holder on Thursday and Friday.
"Sounds more like a conspiracy to hide from American people," Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren tweeted after Executive Vice President Michael Clemente announced that the news organization would not attend.
Holder called the meetings to discuss the ground rules for investigating government leaks that involve journalists. The Justice Department said meeting off the record would allow for more candid exchanges, but many news organizations immediately rejected the idea. The few organizations that agreed to meet with Holder include the Washington Post and ABC News.
"I think it shows a lack of basic communications skill that an off-the-record deal would fly," said Reed Galen, a GOP strategist and former deputy campaign manager for Sen. John McCain's presidential run. "Outlets would never allow someone to visit their editorial board and agree not to write on the proceedings."
Holder's damage-control effort was intended to reassure news organizations that the Justice Department did not intend to prosecute journalists following revelations that the department secretly monitored the phones of Associated Press journalists and reviewed the personal phone and email records of Fox News reporter James Rosen in separate leak investigations. In Rosen's case, Holder signed a search warrant that described Rosen as a criminal co-conspirator to a State Department employee who illegally leaked information about North Korea.
But Holder's effort to repair relations with reporters appears to have backfired in a big way with the no-reporting rules. If anything, Galen said, the botched attempt has become "one more way that the story keeps dragging out."
President Obama has made several attempts to appease the press in the wake of the surveillance revelations. He has stressed the importance of a free press in various speeches and called on Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to introduce a federal shield law for journalists. But the media quickly pointed out that the Schumer legislation would not have stopped the kind of snooping that Justice did in the cases of Rosen and the Associated Press.
Democratic Party officials on Thursday did little to help repair the administration's relationship with the press. The party's communications director, Brad Woodhouse, angered many in the media with a tweet that said if reporters refuse to meet with Holder to discuss leak investigation ground rules, they "forfeit" their "right to gripe."
Doug Schoen, a Democratic strategist who worked for the campaigns of former President Clinton, said the surveillance by Justice and the growing media backlash over the secretive meetings could undermine Holder.
"It appears that as Holder's integrity increasingly comes into question, that his effectiveness as attorney general is being reduced accordingly," Schoen said.
But Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said ultimately the public may not really care much about the matter "because a majority isn't in love with the media either."