Meeting with the Attorney General

June 10, 2013 01:30

By Mike Cavender, RTDNA Executive Director

As part of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s review of media policies and practices, as ordered by President Obama, on behalf of RTDNA, I participated in a meeting on Friday last week to insure that our members concerns were heard and understood.

This meeting of about 20 journalism organizations and educational institutions followed an earlier one by Holder, which included Washington bureau chiefs and other news-gathering representatives.

While officially an “off the record” session, we agreed (as did the group earlier) to be able to report, in general terms, the concepts and concerns we discussed. 

According to the Attorney General, his goal is to use our collective input to revise and rewrite decades-old regulations which are supposed to govern the Department of Justice in its efforts to obtain information in pending criminal investigations.  Most recently, in the cases involving the Associated Press and Fox News, the probes were aimed at collecting information related to leaks of classified national security information to reporters of these organizations.

Holder freely admitted that the guidelines in place at the DOJ, which were written in the pre-Internet era of the late ‘70s and 80s, were outdated and needed to be revised.  

I specifically voiced concerns about, among other things, the importance of much more specifically defining—and then following—the already-in-place notification requirements to the news media.  News organizations must be told, in advance, of the government’s interest in obtaining such information as phone and email records from individuals and news companies, which are operating in their day-to-day capacity of reporting the news.   Following this mandate will enable discussions and even negotiations to take place between the two parties before such records are accessed.

But I added that such notification must be combined with clearly defined “third party” recourse, such as review by a federal judge of these requests, in the event the two sides can’t come to an agreement on how to proceed.   Again, these protections are addressed in the original guidelines—but have not been applied as they should be.  

Much more tightly-designed regulations, along with much more narrowly-defined exemptions, such as for national security, will go a better distance, the group agreed, toward the aims of both sides in these situations.  Properly administered, such changes may also diffuse the kind of firestorm of controversy which resulted after news of the AP and Fox News stories broke.

Holder reiterated to us his support of federal shield law legislation, which emerged again in Congress, after these stories became public.  Previous efforts at a federal shield law have gone nowhere, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of our 50 states have similar protections in place for journalists at that level.

I believe the conversation the group had with Holder and his staff was constructive and well-intentioned.  The Attorney General is looking to journalistic organizations of all types to provide this kind of specific input, as he works toward the mid-July deadline set by the President for this review to be complete and recommendations for change be made. 

RTDNA is committed to maintaining its leadership role on important First Amendment issues like this one.  If you have concerns or ideas you’d like me to share as part of this process, be sure to let me know.   Together, and with our colleagues, I believe we can influence important change—change which will enable both journalists and the government to do their respective jobs more effectively with a better protection of our inherent rights.