Why RTDNA met 'off the record' with the AG

June 13, 2013 01:30

By Vincent Duffy, RTDNA Chairman

When US Attorney General Eric Holder invited reporters and editors from major news organizations to discuss the way his department conducted investigations into national security leaks, people were not tripping over each other in a rush to attend.

While a handful of news organizations, including the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, went to discuss how future leak probes that affect national security could be conducted without infringing on the freedom of the press, most media outlets refused to go.

Refusing to go served two purposes: It allowed media outlets to continue to demonstrate their outrage at the broad collection of phone records from Associated Press reporters and the phone records and emails of Fox News correspondent James Rosen. It also served to point out the hypocrisy of holding an “off the record” meeting to discuss issues of freedom of the press and governmental transparency.

Because of this, I completely understand and support the decisions of news outlets such as The New York Times, CNN, Fox News and the AP (and many others) not to attend the meetings. They took a defensible and principled stance. I even said so in media interviews about the topic.

Last week, Holder scheduled a similar meeting for the major journalism associations and educational institutions in the country. RTDNA was among those invited to participate. The meeting was held under similar “off the record” stipulations, and again some refused to participate under those rules.

We at RTDNA decided we would attend. Executive Director Mike Cavender along with our legal counsel (Kathy Kirby from Wiley Rein LLP) represented RTDNA at the meeting last Friday. If you haven't already, be sure to read Mike’s report from the meeting.

I’ve been asked a number of times since then why RTDNA would support those news organizations that refused to participate in an “off the record” meeting, but then participate in a very similar meeting ourselves? The reason is that RTDNA is not a news-gathering organization, but rather an organization that represents the interests of electronic and digital journalists and news gathering organizations on many fronts.

News organizations often accept or decline to receive information “off the record” depending upon their own journalistic ethics, their need for the information for a story, and the value they believe having the information will provide in their efforts to inform the public. While many outlets chose not to participate in this meeting with Holder, I’m fairly certain all of them at one time or another have had an “off the record” conversation with someone from the DOJ.

But the job of RTDNA is not to produce journalism, it’s to represent the interests of journalists. For that reason, attending meetings such as the one held by the Attorney General is exactly what we should be doing, especially since so many news outlets chose not to attend. Our job is to make sure the opinions of electronic and digital journalists and their news gathering outlets are known to the administration, to make sure that you are aware of the administration’s positions, and to act as a representative of the collective electronic media in important matters.

In my opinion, one of RTDNA’s many responsibilities is to represent your interests and be your voice, especially when circumstances make it difficult for news outlets to do it themselves. That’s what we did last Friday.