Holder calls for media silence, watchdogs scratch fleas

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Established media freedom groups are ignoring Attorney General Eric Holder’s demand that The Daily Caller stop writing about congressional calls for his resignation.

The groups’ silence contrasts with their vigorous defense against Republican critics of the news media, and contrasts with the praise given to the media’s aggressive coverage of decisions by officials in George W. Bush’s presidency.

The media watchdogs’ silence comes as President Barack Obama’s administration faces political peril with public approval having fallen to the level held by President Jimmy Carter. A Holder resignation would likely add to the administration’s immediate problems, and increase the GOP’s 2012 momentum.

Attorney General John Ashcroft “never asked a reporter to stop reporting on a subject, no matter how uncomfortable it may have been,” said Mark Corallo, who served as Ashcroft’s press secretary during his 2001 to 2005 term, when many media articles painted Ashcroft as a proponent of excessive police powers after 9/11.

“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. … We understood that we would take a lot of heat,” he said. “Freedom of speech and of the press — our wonderful First Amendment — allowed the media to cover things that made us uncomfortable.”

The controversy began on Nov. 29, when TheDC’s reporter asked Holder about congressional calls for his resignation. The question prompted the nation’s top law enforcement official to point his finger at the reporter and demand that “you need to stop this. It’s not an organic thing that’s just happening. You guys are behind it.”

“I don’t recall [Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales ever talking with a reporter like that — ever,” said a former department official. In 2007, Gonzales was subject to numerous critical articles following Democratic legislators’ investigations into the administration’s decision to fire several district attorneys, all of whom had earlier been hired for political slots by the same administration.

Holder’s spokesman declined to respond to requests from TheDC that he further explain his demand.

The Washington Post’s media critic, Erik Wemple, did not mention the episode, and instead wrote about an amusing book review, a Rachel Maddow commentary and the cancellation of a sex-related column at a university newspaper.

The New York Times noted the outburst by merely highlighting a link to TheDC’s article.

Politico described Holder’s aggressive finger-pointing as a “plea.”

TMPMuckraker recast Holder’s directive as media criticism when it said he “told a reporter … that the news organization was ginning up calls for him to resign.”

When asked by TheDC for a comment via e-mail, Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for a Free Press, simply said “no.” When asked to explain her silence, she replied she was traveling and did not have the “ability to carefully research and analyze what happened in a thoughtful way.”

David Weigel, a controversial writer now at Slate Magazine, supported the TheDC’s reporting, but didn’t challenge Holder’s extraordinary demand.

Some criticism of Holder was offered by Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, after TheDC called for a comment. “I wasn’t aware of the episode. … I find it extraordinary that this has not gotten attention,” he said.

“The question, of course, is whether it is possible for a government official of that rank to essentially separate an offhand admonition from a government threat,” he said.

However, Policinski muted his criticism by comparing Holder’s demand to the controversy over 2001 remarks made by Bush’s spokesman, Ari Fleischer,

In a daily press conference shortly after the 9/11 atrocity, Fleischer rebuked a GOP legislator’s crude comment about people who wear turbans and also rebuked Bill Maher for his attribution of bravery to the 9/11 murderers. The statements “are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do,” said Fleischer.

This bipartisan criticism was portrayed by many media reports as a White House effort to chill speech by Democrats. Policinski echoed this criticism on Nov. 30, saying “from an academic, [Fleischer’s statement] might be an interesting admonition, from the press secretary of the U.S. president, it took on an altogether different character.”

But, according to Corallo, “there’s a big difference between [the attorney general asking for a delay because of national security concerns] and saying to a reporter, ‘I don’t like this story. you guys are keeping it alive, and you really ought to stop reporting on it… That’s petulance.”

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