As Journalists Become the Story, Will the Rules Change?

By Gail Shister 

Will news organizations’ boycott of the Attorney General’s ‘off-the-record’ background sessions last week change the rules of the game between government sources and media?

On the record: Doubtful, at best.

“It won’t change anything,” says Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. “In Washington, media will continue to deal with administration sources, brokering access and information for pledges of confidentiality.

“It’s a pernicious practice, and very widespread, but it’s how business is done.”

Embattled AG Eric Holder held meetings with top Washington journalists Thursday and Friday to discuss concerns about Department of Justice guidelines for dealing with journalists in investigations of possible security leaks.

The New York Times, CNN, CBS News, NBC News and the Associated Press, among others, passed on Thursday’s meeting because of its off-the-record requirement. At that gathering, however, the DOJ blinked, and news outlets were told they could report on ‘general’ topics of discussion.

Thursday attendees included The Washington Post, Politico, New Yorker, Daily News and The Wall Street Journal. ABC News, the lone network representative last week, met with Holder Friday, along with USA Today and Reuters, which had initially said no to Thursday.

David Westin, ABC News president from 1997 through 2010, agrees with his alma mater’s decision to attend and says it was “smart” of the DOJ to modify its rule.

“News organizations are in the business of reporting news, not keeping it secret,” says Westin. “This happens from time to time. It’s part of a larger issue with the White House itself. It’s part of the normal give-and-take, back-and-forth of the press covering the administration.”

In Westin’s view, Holder’s sessions presented a particular challenge in that the news outlets were also principals in the story. “They were asked not as reporters, but as people being affected by the Justice Department.”

Going further, Harvard’s Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the New York Times, says the meetings served as de facto press conferences, regardless of Holder’s intentions, and that Holder was “naïve” to think otherwise.

“If you’re going to invite every news organization in Washington and tell them it’s off the record, I think you’re kidding yourself,” Jones says. “This was an off-the-record press conference. Who ever heard of an off-the-record press conference? There was too much interest in it to stay off the record.”

According to Kelly McBride, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, if a “critical mass” among the most influential news outlets were to boycott such sessions, in this or in future administrations, it could force a change in the rules.

“I’m heartened by the notion that some news organizations would say ‘Enough is enough,’” McBride says. “I’ve always been suspicious of ‘off-the-record’ sessions. They have the potential to co-opt or even bully news organizations into avoiding certain topics or adopting certain behaviors that don’t necessarily serve the public.”

Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, says there is a “gravitational law” for such sessions: “The more people who are in the room, the less valuable the briefing will be.”

As for McBride’s theory that a “critical mass” of media boycotters could reverse the rules, all the experts, including McBride, acknowledge that the odds of reaching such a mass are slim. Journalists are notorious for not playing well with others of their kind.

News organizations “pride themselves on making independent decisions,” says Rosenstiel. “It’s not unusual for The New York Times or CBS News to go another way.

“The press does not and should not operate in a pack.”

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