Major news outlets lined up to reject Attorney General Eric Holder’s offer of an off-the-record meeting Thursday as his conflict with the press corps escalated.
The New York Times, the Associated Press, The Huffington Post and CNN were the first major outlets to decline the offer, and Fox News, Reuters, CBS News, McClatchy and NBC News followed. The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, ABC News and Politico have said they plan on attending the meeting.
“They don't help us inform the public," McClatchy Washington bureau chief James Asher told Poynter about off-the-record meetings. “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.”
The Huffington Post Washington bureau chief Ryan Grim had similarly sharp words in his rejection.
“A conversation specifically about the freedom of the press should be an open one,” he said. “We have a responsibility not to betray that.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday that the administration was “hopeful that media organizations will take advantage of the opportunity to constructively contribute to this process.”
Earnest stressed that the attorney general was “taking this seriously” and argued it wasn't hypocritical to hold a meeting about press freedoms off the record.
“The AG is interested in having a constructive policy discussion with professional journalists about a subject most people think is a complex policy issue,” Earnest said.
Representatives from several organizations, including The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, met with Holder and other Justice Department officials for more than an hour late Thursday, according to The New York Times.
The Times quoted participants who said Holder acknowledged criticism of the department and expressed a commitment to update internal guidelines covering subpoenas.
Holder and his department have come under fire for aggressively pursuing national security leaks by subpoenaing reporter phone records and, in the case of Fox News reporter James Rosen, monitoring his movements in and out of the State Department.
Justice also labeled Rosen a co-conspirator in their warrant request used to seize his email records. The effort was approved by Holder, who recused himself from a different investigation involving The Associated Press.
The DOJ scheduled meetings Thursday and Friday with representatives from across the media spectrum. Holder asked for the meetings in an attempt to assure the press corps that its investigations of national security leaks are conducted in a way that respects the First Amendment.
Many of the organizations that declined have said they would be happy to meet with Holder if they could report on the content of the discussions, and some of those that accepted said they would still push for the conversation to take place on the record.
“ABC News will attend the meeting and press for that conversation to be put on the record,” a spokesperson said.
Editors from The Washington Post and Politico defended their organization’s decisions to attend, arguing that off-the-record meetings with sources are a routine part of newsgathering.
“I prefer that any meeting be on the record,” Washington Post Editor-in-Chief Marty Baron said. “That said, journalists routinely participate in off-the-record sessions, whether they prefer those conditions or not, and then continue to report on events. I am going to this meeting in order to represent our interests as journalists and to raise our concerns. I'll also listen to what the Attorney General has to say. I trust that our journalists will report on this as vigorously as they would any other subject."
The rejected invitations are the latest setback for the embattled attorney general, who has been under fire from the left and the right over tactics the DOJ has used to investigate reporters for leaks it considers to be matters of national security.
Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee are investigating whether Holder lied in his May 15 testimony to the panel, when he said that “potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material” is “not something I’ve ever been involved in, heard of, or would think would be wise policy.”
A handful of lawmakers have called for Holder to resign, including Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who heads the House Judiciary Committees subcommittee on Investigations and is looking into whether Holder lied under oath.
In an interview Thursday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said Holder should "absolutely" resign, and accused the Justice Department of "a willingness to disregard the law."
"It's unprecedented," Cruz said. "The degree of willingness of the administration to target a reporter for this network as an unindicted co-conspirator? That is unprecedented.”
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee, told Fox’s Bill O’Reilly that he backs Sensenbrenner’s call for Holder to resign.
“Look, I think when a legal giant like Jim Sensenbrenner, who knows this agency extremely well, says this man has gone beyond the pale of his office, I agree with that,” said Ryan.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said Thursday that while she has confidence in Holder, the DOJ needs to address its internal leak investigation processes with the public in addition to having conversations with members of the media.
“Let's put all of the issues out on the table, not only in front of the press who's going to these meetings, but the American people,” she said in an interview on MSNBC. “Let the American people know what's going on.
“These are huge issues that need to be debated,” she continued. “We're talking about leaks that could have endangered American lives and American security. We need to look at what should the limits be [and] what should the protections be in this particular area of national security.”
--Justin Sink contributed to this story.
--This report was updated at 10:24 p.m.