Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday promised media outlets he would overhaul how the Justice Department handles future leak investigations and expressed regret over the seizure of journalists' records, according to reports.
In an off-the-record meeting with several media organizations, Holder also reportedly promised to learn more about how journalists report on sensitive stories, Reuters reported.
Gerald Seib, Washington bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, told Reuters "there was a commitment to change the department's guidelines for handling cases such as these and a renewed commitment to support a federal shield law for journalists."
Holder has invited several more Washington media chiefs for more meetings on Friday — even as many other press honchos skip the off-the-record event.
Holder is at the center of a political storm over his department’s investigation of national security leaks, which has involved subpoenaing reporter emails and phone records and labeling one Fox News reporter a “co-conspirator.”
The meetings with bureau chiefs were supposed to help Holder dig out of a hole, but demands that they remain confidential have sparked more howls of protest.
The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Huffington Post, CNN, Fox News, Reuters, CBS News, NBC News and McClatchy are among the media outlets boycotting the meetings.
The New York Daily News, New Yorker, The Washington Post and Politico were among the outlets that attended Thursday's meeting.
The Times quoted participants who said Holder acknowledged criticism of the department and expressed a commitment to update internal guidelines covering subpoenas.
Although the Thursday meeting was off the record, Reuters said some of the participants spoke to reporters after its conclusion.
The White House on Thursday defended the decision to try and keep the proceedings confidential.
“The AG is interested in having a constructive policy discussion with professional journalists about a subject most people think is a complex policy issue,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters traveling on Air Force One.
He argued it wasn’t hypocritical to hold a meeting about press freedoms off the record, and said the administration was “hopeful that media organizations will take advantage of the opportunity to constructively contribute to this process.”
While off-the-record events — even remarks by cabinet members such as Holder — are common in Washington, media firms boycotting the event said it violated their journalistic guidelines or was a conflict of interest.
“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 controversy surrounding Holder has led to new calls for his resignation from Republicans, and created another headache for the White House.
Liberal commentators have also criticized Justice’s actions, and even David Axelrod, President Obama’s former chief political adviser, described Justice’s probe of Fox News reporter James Rosen as “disturbing.”
Aides to Holder have been quoted describing Holder’s own personal remorse about the Fox case, in which Justice monitored Rosen’s 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 AP.
Republicans have drawn comparisons between Obama and former President Richard Nixon, and have sought to link the president directly to Justice’s actions.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) on Thursday said he wasn't sure whether Obama himself could be implicated in the controversy, but that Holder failed to do his job if the president was not aware.
“This is awful, this is chilling. And this is something that would have come out of the Nixon White House. Not the Obama White House,” he said in an interview on MSNBC.
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,” 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."
Justin Sink and Sheldon Alberts contributed to this story.