Former NBC evening news anchor Tom Brokaw got it exactly right when he assessed Attorney General Eric Holder's invitation to Washington media chiefs for an off-the-record meeting. Said Brokaw: "If it's worth talking about, let's put it on the record. If we need to know about it, let's put it in the sunshine." Despite glittering promises of openness in government by Holder and the man in the Oval Office whose interests he protects, the Obama era has displayed an unprecedented lack of transparency epitomized in the attorney general's request for the off-the-record meeting. Neither Obama nor Holder appear to understand that transparency is the essential preface to credibility.
But credibility is precisely what the president and his attorney general lack on the issue to be discussed at the requested meeting. Holder's request was tendered as part and parcel of the president's attempt to get his administration ahead of the three scandals that have suddenly erupted in his second term. Officially at least, Holder wants to discuss the Department of Justice's guidelines for how the government treats journalists seeking information for sensitive national security stories.
Yet the only people who don't seem to understand the rules are Obama and Holder. For decades, the commonly accepted procedure has involved the government going to the media organization in question and laying out the concerns involved. That conversation has usually sufficed to cancel the urge to use search warrants, telephone bugs or other invasive measures because it allowed the media organization to define whether and how it cooperated with the government.
The present problem is twofold: First, Holder didn't require that his agents to approach either AP or Fox News officials before they went judge-shopping for approval of extremely invasive, constitutionally suspect measures beyond what was needed to identify a government employee who had leaked information. In the case involving Fox's James Rosen, Holder's agents even named the reporter as a "co-conspirator" in a leak that the attorney general described -- inaccurately it turned out -- as one of the most serious in his experience. Second, Holder has contradicted himself in describing his role in these matters to Congress and the public. Even worse, Obama then inserted himself in the Holder mess by directing Holder to investigate himself.
Praise for the New York Times rarely appears in this space, but the Gray Lady's editor, Jill Abramson, set a wise example for other journalists when she said her paper was declining Holder's invitation: "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."
It is hypocritical to pretend independence before readers while colluding behind closed doors with the very officials being covered. Besides, the principals here can have a meeting with journalists any time they want simply by convening that rarity of the Obama era, an on-the-record news conference. Then the news media -- and the American people -- can make their own judgments.