Should Journalists Attend Holder's Off-The-Record Meeting?

Some news organizations are saying 'thanks, but no thanks' to an off-the-record meeting with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. He offered to discuss guidelines involving the Justice Department's investigation of security leaks to the press. Host Michel Martin checks in with the Barbershop guys.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shapeup this week are writer and culture critic Jimi Izrael, with us from Chicago. Pablo Torre is a senior writer with ESPN.com with us from New York. Here in Washington D.C. with me, Arsalan Iftikhar. He's the senior editor of the Islamic Monthly and the founder of themuslimguy.com. Also with us, Timothy Johnson. He's founder and president of the Frederick Douglass Foundation. That's a group focused on outreach to African-American conservatives. Thank you all. Welcome, Jimi. Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks Michel. Fellows, welcome to the shop. How are we doing?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Thank you, man. What's cracking?

IZRAEL: Tim Johnson, is this your first time in?

TIMOTHY JOHNSON: No, this is my third time, my friend. Thank you.

IZRAEL: Oh man, I'm so...

JOHNSON: I'm waiting to come back on a regular basis. I don't know what the deal is.

IZRAEL: You know, I knew that I was just testing you.

MARTIN: To see if he remembered because it's so memorable?

IZRAEL: Right. OK.

MARTIN: Nice, nice.

IZRAEL: Well, you know what? Let's get things started. It happens to me all the time at in-law gatherings, but anyway, let's get this started. Attorney General Eric Holder's been getting raked over the coals. He's getting the business from congressional Republicans. He's in hot water about the Justice Department targeting reporters in leak investigation and now he's getting grief for trying to talk to the press, but on his own terms, which is kind of strange for me, Michel. But I don't know, worth a shot, huh?

MARTIN: I don't know whether that's strange. I mean, they do this all the time here. It's just the circumstances are, you know, are what they are, but they do this all the time. I mean, he offered to have an off-the-record meeting with reporters but a number of news organizations have declined the invitation, including Fox News, CBS, CNN, Reuters, McClatchy and the Associated Press.

And if you're wondering what NPR's doing, we are told that NPR's executive vice president for news will attend, along with the network's general counsel, and I'm told that the news officials said that they said they would not attend unless they could bring the general counsel and so they initially said no and then they said yes. So that's what they're going to do.

IZRAEL: That's interesting. Oh OK, thank you for that, Michel. OK. Fellows, who's right on this? Arsalan, A-train.

IFTIKHAR: Yes sir.

IZRAEL: We know that you are an Obama supporter, for what it's worth. Would you join this party, bro?

IFTIKHAR: I would probably not join this party in this case. It's important to keep in mind that, as Michel mentioned, that these sorts of off-the-record briefings happen all the time between journalists and government agencies. Now they're usually more in an editorial capacity, but I think what the media outlets that are boycotting this off-the-record meeting are doing is sending a political message to Eric Holder and the Department of Justice and to a larger extent the Obama administration that what you've done in terms of, you know, trying to track the phone records of Associated Press reporters and other journalists was crossing a line.

And if you are going to meet with, and discuss this issue with journalists, that this does need to be on the record. And so again, I can understand why journalists and media outlets are going to the meeting, because it's been happening since time immemorial, but I can also understand why they're not because they're trying to make a political point about...

MARTIN: Why wouldn't you go to this one? Because you do go to others.

IFTIKHAR: Right. And I think in this case it would be to make a political point that, you know, I think Eric Holder, Attorney General Eric Holder, you know, needs to do it on the record. I mean, if I were him I would do a til-you-drop press conference, basically allowing any media outlet to ask any questions until they're winded and satisfied. And I think only then are you going to be able to move on from this issue.

MARTIN: That was the Keating - remember, Senator John McCain during the Keating Five. He was criticized, along with obviously other people, for allegedly inappropriate ties to a political donor. That's happened, apparently, on occasion.

IFTIKHAR: Sometimes.

MARTIN: And he had one of those talk-til-you-drop press conferences, just took any question from anybody for as long as it took. OK. What else?

IZRAEL: Mr. Johnson, what's your take, man?

JOHNSON: Well, you know, I think there's been enough off-the-record press conferences or whatever you want to call it, Kumbaya sessions with Eric Holder and others and I think at this stage in the juncture, we've got to get serious about the business at hand. People are tired of feeling that the media knows a lot more than it reports and if you allow this to happen again, I think the public in general is going to be very untrusting of the media in general.

And especially what happened with the Associated Press and how they've gone about back-dooring so many other issues over the years. I mean, again, we know that this is not a partisan issue because it's happened under Republican leadership as well as under Democrat leadership. I think that society in general is just sick and tired of this kind of communication.

MARTIN: Now, aren't you - Tim, you're the former vice chair of the North Carolina Republican Party, right?

JOHNSON: That's correct.

MARTIN: So you're telling me you never talked off the record with journalists when you were in that post?

JOHNSON: No. To be honest with you, I didn't.

MARTIN: Never did?

JOHNSON: I didn't. I didn't. Because, you know what? The reality of it, I don't know...

MARTIN: Now if I find somebody who says they talked to you off the record what you going to say?

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Oh-oh.

JOHNSON: I would love for them to come on the show.

IFTIKHAR: He's going to say it was off the record.

MARTIN: Oh, OK.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: Hey, hey, I would love for them to come on the show because see, I don't believe that you can talk to a journalist off the record. And that's just my personal opinion. I think...

IZRAEL: Yeah. I mean that's my thing.

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Yeah. I mean...

MARTIN: What about you, Pablo?

PABLO TORRE: Yeah. I mean as a journalist in sports even, we talk off the record all of the time. And I think the reason - and I should also disclose, Eric Holder's incoming spokesman, Brian Fallon is in my fantasy baseball league, that's a thing...

(LAUGHTER)

TORRE: ...only a couple of people maybe who are listening will be able to appreciate. But as a journalist, I completely respect what all these organizations are doing in terms of pushing back. I get that there is - I mean the reason you do this is if the political speech value of protesting, not attending outweighs the information that you might receive, and in this day and age - as Arsalan was saying - I got to respect that. Because there needs to be some amount of pushback in terms of public perception. Tim is also saying this, in terms of the distrust of the media right now in relationship with this administration, and in the actions of Eric Holder himself and his attitude towards journalists. I mean journalists, it's an open - it's not a secret at all - are a sensitive people who protect their own. And so from that perspective, and the political act nature of not going, I completely respect that. Although, yes, I have gone to off-the-record meetings, have a billion of those things all the time, about matters sensitive and not so sensitive.

MARTIN: Jimi, what do you think?

IZRAEL: I think, you know, an off-the-record meeting with the press is kind of like is like an off-camera date with like a Kardashian. I don't get it. I don't understand the point. I mean why am I here? I mean, you know, I'm having like a Stockdale moment; who am I? Why am I here? You know I don't - no. No. I mean let's look...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, because you're making a point, all things come out in time.

IZRAEL: Yeah. But...

MARTIN: All things come out in time. It works but they do. They do.

IZRAEL: We got to go on the record. As a reporter, I'm a reporter myself and as a reporter I've had - I can count on maybe two fingers the off-the-record conversations I've had with important sources. It's like nah, bro, either we talking for real or we're just playing cards, you know, otherwise, you know, you're wasting everybody's time. So and I'm not going to do thaat to my readers. I'm not going to do that to my editor. I'm not going to do that to my byline or my reputation, so...

TORRE: But there's a strategy there too. I mean...

IFTIKHAR: Yeah. There is.

TORRE: ...you talk off the record in order to bring stuff on the record. Sometimes a source will only talk off the record at first and then you move on from there. I think the question with Holder, though, is whether, you know, what would he have said in the first place at this big meeting? And I think The New York Times and all of these organizations maybe think that they're not going to get much to begin with.

MARTIN: Hmm. Well, we'll find out. I mean - or we won't, right?

(LAUGHTER)

TORRE: Or we won't. Yes.

IFTIKHAR: Because it's off the record.

IZRAEL: Yeah. I mean you'll feel silly going to one of these meetings and he teaches you how to Dougie, you know, that's it.

TORRE: Exactly. You're doing that because you want something at this meeting now, if you're breaking ranks here.

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: We are having our weekly visit to the Barbershop with writer Jimi Izrael, commentator Arsalan Iftikhar, sports editor Pablo Torre with ESPN.com and Timothy Johnson. He's with the Frederick Douglass Foundation. That's a group that does outreach to conservative African-Americans.

Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. So the athletic department of Rutgers University is back in the headlines, but not for nothing nice - not for winning a thing, Michel. I don't - ugh.

MARTIN: I know. It's one of these stories, it just goes on and on and on. You remember that...

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: ...that we've been covering this, that earlier this year Rutgers fired its men's basketball coach after a video surfaced showing him verbally and physically abusing players at practice, like, you know, calling them names, throwing balls at them. And now allegations have surfaced about the person that the school has tapped to replace the athletic director who was pressured to resign after the basketball coach was fired, her name is Julie Hermann. She was accused of sex discrimination while she worked at the University of Louisville. And she had - there were former players who said that she was abusive to them when she coached volleyball at the University of Tennessee back in the 1990s. This is one of them, Kelly Hanlon Dow.

KELLY HANLON DOW: She told us that we're fat, we're stupid, we're whores, we're alcoholics, berating, not letting us shower or eat from our road trip from Florida to Tennessee.

MARTIN: And it's been reported that the entire team confronted her in the athletic director's office about this behavior. So, anyway...

IZRAEL: Michel?

MARTIN: Yeah.

IZRAEL: Michel, thanks for that tape. Thank you.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

IZRAEL: Pablo Torre, P-Dog?

TORRE: Yes.

IZRAEL: You know, I count two strikes for Rutgers. What do you make of this?

TORRE: Well, I think you can count a couple of other strikes too because...

IZRAEL: Sure. OK.

TORRE: ...part of this problem is that...

IZRAEL: OK. But who's counting?

TORRE: Rutgers paid $70,000 to a search firm to background-check people. I mean that's taxpayer money that went to making sure that something like this does not happen. Of course, they get the person who something like this has happened exactly to. Now I - look, Julie Hermann's case and Mike Reiss's case is one was on video, one is from people who were there. I'm inclined to believe those players. I don't think they have any incentive to lie about this. But, regardless of what you make of Julie Hermann's actions, the fact that she crossed the threshold into this being even questionable is even stunning to me. And now Rutgers is in fact, paying $150,000 to a crisis communications firm - again, taxpayer money, state university - to clean up all of this mess. And I mean, coaches and athletic directors, you know, we can talk about whether there needs to be some amount of quote/unquote "bullying," some amount of tough love, as you might say, but Rutgers right now, I mean the big whiff is in letting this happen to them. It's mind-blowing that it did.

IFTIKHAR: Yeah.

IZRAEL: Tim Johnson.

JOHNSON: Yeah, I tend...

IZRAEL: Tim Johnson, you're up next.

JOHNSON: Yeah, I tend to agree. I think the challenge is that, you know, being an individual that played on two state championship high school football teams, I can say that most coaches weren't always...

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Popped collar.

JOHNSON: Yeah. Right. I can say that my coaches weren't always the nicest people, but when you think about what is going on in the NCAA here recent, you can ill afford for an athletic director to come in with the baggage that she has. And so Rutgers, like any other school, has to really be cognizant of not only their alumni and how supportive they've been over the years, but also the perception that people have in general about sending their kids off to college to play sports.

IZRAEL: Hmm. Arsalan, should they fire her?

IFTIKHAR: Yes. And I think that Rutgers University should change its name to Ridonkulous University because this is...

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Nice.

MARTIN: Ouch.

IFTIKHAR: ...hands down the ridonkulous award of the week. So as Pablo mentioned, you know, the whole Mike Reiss, Tim Pernetti fiasco, you know, you need to go out and first of all make sure that the $70,000 that you're sending to the search firm brings you back a choir girl or choir boy that is going to help, you know, remediate the reputation that you lost there.

What's fascinating to me is that, you know, there was a 1994 wedding video where Julie Hermann was talking about the marriage of one of her assistant coaches named Ginger Hineline, and basically said that her job would be in jeopardy if she became pregnant too soon after marriage. Now this video has made it on the news. The funny thing is Julie Hermann said that not only does she not remember the video, she doesn't even remember going to her wedding. But it's interesting, she actually caught the bouquet at the wedding. Now I don't know how many bouquets homegirl has caught in her life, but if you don't remember catching the bouquet at your assistant coach's wedding, you know, I think that there's something fishy going on.

MARTIN: Yeah. I don't know. Jimi, what do you think?

IZRAEL: You know, I think, you know, in order to make an omelet you've got to break a few eggs, you know, so I don't know. I mean there's a lot of tough talk...

MARTIN: You think it's acceptable to call somebody a whore while you're coaching them?

IZRAEL: I mean, you know, my father-in-law has called me worse. No he hasn't. I love you, Dad. He hasn't called me worse.

(LAUGHTER)

TORRE: But I mean, you know, it's just one of those things. I mean you try to motivate these people to do - to compete in sports and sports, you know, it's not Hacky Sack. I mean it's real, you know, and the competition is real.

MARTIN: No. I mean...

IZRAEL: And you try to get these people juiced up so...

MARTIN: Maybe if you're in special forces and you're teaching people to withstand, you know, being captured by the enemy.

IFTIKHAR: Torture or something.

TORRE: Right. Yeah.

MARTIN: But I don't under - I mean yeah, I can see it, but I mean you're playing volleyball? No.

IZRAEL: That's just like volleyball. Are you serious? No.

(LAUGHTER)

IFTIKHAR: Listen, Jimi, you can break a few eggs but she done broke a crate of them eggs.

TORRE: Right. I mean the funny - what kind of culture...

MARTIN: That's interesting. I mean I - well, OK, that's where we have different perspectives here, but I think I'm with Mr. Johnson on this, that I think that parents are going to hesitate to send their kids to institutions where this is part of their coaching strategy because if that's...

IFTIKHAR: Absolutely.

MARTIN: What do you do to encourage kids to do well on their SATs?

JOHNSON: Right.

MARTIN: I mean what is that? What is that?

IZRAEL: Yeah, right. That's a good point. You know, but...

TORRE: Well, Michel, in terms of the...

IZRAEL: And that is their right.

MARTIN: Go ahead. OK. Go ahead, Pablo.

TORRE: In terms of the culture and the shift that may be - I mean you played sports in college, Michel.

MARTIN: I did.

TORRE: In terms of the shift that we would like to see in terms of getting away from the name-calling, the bullying maybe not be necessary for sports, it's not warfare. This is a good thing because there is going to be negative recruiting about bullying, which is a new one. I mean you're going to have parents saying we don't want to send our kids to a place that's like that, which is new.

MARTIN: Well, in the couple of minutes that we have left, I also want to return to one more story that we talked about on the program. Charles Ramsey, the man who helped rescue the three women who were held captive for 10 years in Ohio just got a speaking deal. He became an Internet star after that story broke. Here's a clip of him on "Nightline" talking about the swarm of calls he got from the media.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "NIGHTLINE")

CHARLES RAMSEY: That feels like Boost Mobile is going to charge me more than $50 a month now. That's what it feels like. It feels like that I done messed up that unlimited plan dramatically.

MARTIN: And Jimi, I'm going to ask you about this because you were...

IZRAEL: Oh, no.

MARTIN: Well, you felt that people were making fun of him, not - laughing at him, not laughing with him. And that we had...

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: ...you know, a conversation about that. You know, it's interesting. He also made it known that he had been offered a lot of free hamburgers - and that he's turned down all these offers of free hamburgers because he, you know.

IZRAEL: Well, it's complicated because he...

MARTIN: So tell me what you think about this. Mm-hmm.

IZRAEL: It's complicated because he's had free hamburgers coming and going. McDonald's has extended him on the low, reportedly extended him on the low a free hamburger deal, as well as various hamburger joints in the city of Cleveland. You know, this Charles Ramsey thing, just like all of these Internet memes, it all happens in three acts, and right now we're about at the top of the third one. You know, it's really sad, the incredible turn of fortune is what happens in the third act. And I mean this awful thing with him in the second act saying that he's not going to accept any money for any of this and then in the third act he decides well, maybe I'll accept 10 grand to come retell the story over and over again about how, you know, it was a dead giveaway, you know, and, you know, and hopefully this will motivate you and your company to do what?

So I think now we are seeing - we're on the other side of the hero mountain and his stock is plummeting dramatically. If you read some of the stuff that's being written about him on Cleveland.com, you know, all those well-wishers have since moved on. And now the big story coming out of all this is we're waiting to hear - I mean because the whole block is basically refuting Charles - the whole Seymour Avenue is refuting his account. And so what we're waiting to hear what or if anything the girls will say. And I'm, you know, I'm going to go out in the limb - and I've said it privately, I guess I'm just going to go out on a limb and say I believe that when the girls surface that there's going to be some refutation of - a refutation of Charles Ramsey's account. I do believe that.

MARTIN: That's so - wow, I guess you're saying it's a tragic story now. Go ahead, Pablo, you wanted to say something?

IZRAEL: Yeah. It's going to turn tragic really quick.

TORRE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Pablo, go ahead. Mm-hmm.

TORRE: I was going to say I like the idea that there are financial rewards for heroism. I think that's a good thing.

IZRAEL: Ten grand?

TORRE: I meant to some extent it's better than nothing to incentivize people to do good. But I have to agree with Jimi that there is a - these lifecycles, I mean they're short and they're often nasty on the back end.

MARTIN: Arsalan?

IZRAEL: So I worry about him handling it.

MARTIN: Arsalan, really quickly.

IFTIKHAR: Don't hate the player. Hate the game. It just reminds me that I need to call my agent and have them start charging more than 10K for my speeches.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Oh, OK. A very good point, Arsalan. We'll just have to start saving our pennies. Thank you for...

TORRE: Paid for speaking?

MARTIN: Jimi Izrael is a writer and culture critic. He's an adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College. He was with us from Chicago today at member station WBEZ. Timothy Johnson is founder and president of the Frederick Douglass Foundation. He was with us from Baton Rouge. Here in our Washington, D.C. studios is Arsalan Iftikhar, senior editor of the Islamic Monthly and founder of themuslimguy.com, and Pablo Torre, senior writer for ESPN.com, with us from NPR studios in New York. Thank you all.

IFTIKHAR: Peace.

TORRE: Thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

IZRAEL: Yup-yup.

MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our Barbershop podcast, that's in the iTunes store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

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