The U.S. Department of Justice knows it has some explaining to do about the policies and reasoning that went into its quiet subpoenas of journalists’ phone records as it investigated leaks, and it’s offered Washington bureau chiefs a chance to come and discuss just that. The problem is, the department is only willing to speak off the record. So the Associated Press and the New York Times have said they won’t go. Times editor Jill Abramson said, “It isn’t appropriate for us to attend an off the record meeting with the attorney general.” And the AP said in a statement that “if it is not on the record, AP will not attend and instead will offer our views on how the regulations should be updated in an open letter.” It would be surprising if more organizations don’t follow them.
As Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone points out, the AP has a reputation for taking the lead in pushing back against government background rules. And members of the Washington press corps also tend to operate as a team on stuff like this, as when more than 50 of them signed a letter of protest to the DOJ over its subpoena of the AP’s phone records. The press also moved somewhat in sync to implement rules (or at least collectively recoil) against quote approval after Jeremy Peters’ Times story on the practice last summer.
After the big media players started dropping out of the DOJ meeting, Democratic Party communications director Brad Woodhouse tweeted that that “kind of forfeits your gripe.” The news organizations, as well as the ACLU, aren’t buying that, pointing out that they’re “trying to maintain their independence.” Agreeing to keep the secrets of the agency that secretly tracked you wouldn’t really work with that goal.