Several U.S. news organisations rejected an offer by Attorney General Eric Holder to meet and discuss how the Justice Department handles investigations that involve reporters, saying it would be inappropriate to talk in secret.
However, representatives of five other media outlets went ahead with a meeting on Thursday, arriving at the Justice Department’s headquarters to see Holder after recent disclosures that federal prosecutors had seized journalists’ records without warning.
Reuters, CNN, The New York Times and the Associated Press declined to meet with Holder, President Barack Obama’s top law enforcement official, because the meetings were due to be “off the record,” meaning they could not be recorded or reported.
The journalists who did attend the initial meeting were James Warren of the New York Daily News, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, John Harris of Politico, Gerald Seib of The Wall Street Journal and Martin Baron of The Washington Post. They entered the Justice Department through the main entrance.
It was unclear how many media companies were invited or would attend other meetings planned for Friday.
The talks followed the Obama administration’s decision to search the email and phone records of Fox News, and the phone records of the Associated Press, as part of investigations into leaks of secret government information.
The seizure of records, and an FBI agent’s description of Fox News reporter James Rosen as a potential criminal co-conspirator, led to an outcry from journalists and advocates of free speech and prompted new calls for a federal law protecting reporters’ work.
That led to a debate in Washington over how the Obama administration is balancing the need for national security with privacy rights. Along with a separate furore over the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative political groups for extra scrutiny, it also stoked fears of excessive government intrusion under Obama.
Holder personally authorized the searches of Fox News records as the Justice Department investigated a leak regarding North Korea, a department official said on Tuesday.
James Cole, the deputy attorney general, authorized the search of the Associated Press records as part of an investigation into a leak about U.S. counterterrorism operations in Yemen.
Holder has echoed Obama in saying that leaks of classified information pose security risks and must stop.
Harris, Politico’s editor in chief, said he routinely has off-the-record conversations to discuss news coverage and news gathering practices, and would attend the meeting with Holder.
“I feel anyone – whether an official or ordinary reader – should be able to have an unguarded conversation with someone in a position of accountability for a news organisation when there is good reason,” he said in an email quoted on Politico’s website.
Bloomberg News told Reuters it would also attend.
Baron, The Washington Post’s executive editor, said he would prefer to meet on the record, but that “journalists routinely participate in off-the-record sessions, whether they prefer those conditions or not, and then continue to report on events.”
A spokesman for ABC News said it would attend but would “press for that conversation to be put on the record.”
Some other media outlets declined.
“We would welcome the opportunity to hear the attorney general’s explanation for the Department of Justice’s handling of subpoenas to journalists, and his thoughts about improving the protections afforded to media organisations in responding to government investigations, but believe firmly that his comments should be for publication,” said Reuters spokesperson Barb Burg.
New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson said in a statement on Wednesday that an off-the-record meeting with the attorney general “isn’t appropriate.” She said the newspaper’s lawyer would likely meet later with other Justice Department officials “on how the law should be applied in leak cases.”
The Associated Press also said the meetings should be open to coverage. If they were not, the AP would “offer our views on how the regulations should be updated in an open letter” and follow up with its lawyers, AP spokeswoman Erin Madigan White said in a statement.
Television networks Fox News, CBS and CNN as well as online news group The Huffington Post also said they would not attend. NBC said it had not decided.
Holder wanted a “constructive policy discussion with professional journalists,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. “We are hopeful that media organisations will take advantage of the opportunity to constructively contribute to the process,” he told reporters aboard Air Force One.
Prompted by the Rosen search and the seizure of the Associated Press’ phone records, Obama announced last week that Holder would begin a review of Justice Department procedures related to media records.
Obama and Holder both said they favoured a federal “shield law” for the media that would protect journalists from being compelled to disclose their records in most cases.