Attorney General Eric Holder’s off-the-record invitation to discuss guidelines for handling investigations of leaks involving journalists caused a divide between news media.
Many like Jim Asher, McClatchy's Washington bureau chief, declined, stating, “It seems to be something of a PR campaign to make nice with the press.”
Journalists cannot just wag their index finger from a safe distance and not be willing to then sit and speak to the person (or agency it is criticizing).
- Hugo Balta
Others like USA TODAY’s editor in chief, David Callaway, agreed to the meeting saying, "We think it is important to hear what they have to say on an issue that is so vital for the freedom of the press."
The National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), swimming against the tide, was the only independent minority journalism organization to accept Monday’s meeting. With all due respect to the reputable news outlets opposed, as defenders of a free press we cannot simply sit outside in protest. Journalists must engage in any conversation that affects them and their work. We cannot help shape policy if we are not at the table.
Although originally billed as “off the record,” Mr. Holder understood and agreed to have the meeting on the record. Mr. Holder said that it was the Department of Justice intention to host an off-the-record meeting in order to have a free flowing exchange of ideas and not as a tool to suppress information.
It is this lack of understanding of how journalists work by the Attorney General and his office that has created an environment of suspicion and contempt.
It was productive to hear Mr. Holder and his team talk about being more inclusive with media organizations moving forward, but they shouldn’t get a free “pass.” The fact remains that unprecedented measures were used in seizing Associated Press phone records and in a separate case, Fox News reporter James Rosen was described as a potential co-conspirator.
Journalists should not be labeled as criminals for doing their constitutionally-protected service to the community. The trust between a reporter and an anonymous source who fears reprisals should not be broken by the questionable seizure of private records.
Holder assured us that his team explored all means available in gathering information for its investigation before taking the extreme action of obtaining a subpoena. He lamented the outcome and promised to seek changes that would include improving the notice time given to media during such probes.
Mr. Holder was surprisingly candid and regretted some of the actions his department made in pursuing leakers. He admitted that outdated policies must change in order to not give any impression that journalists are the targets of investigations.
However well-intended, the DOJ’s attempt to protect national security trampled over freedom of the press.
While the hour-long meeting did not produce a meaningful list of concrete changes that will secure the rights of journalists, it is a first step in the right direction.
I'm not blind to the perception (and perhaps reality) that the meetings with the Attorney General are just a dog and pony show, a PR stunt to wipe egg off the face of DOJ’s poor handling of investigating leakers. Still, as NAHJ president, that fact that doesn’t acquit me of my responsibility to provide an important and diverse voice on this issue. Journalists cannot just wag their index finger from a safe distance and not be willing to then sit and speak to the person (or agency) they're criticizing.
Pointing fingers is easy. Finding solutions is hard. Media outlets must always be willing to meet face to face with others and discuss ideas that may result in positive change for journalists and journalism.
Hugo Balta is senior director of multicultural content at ESPN. He is a former president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.