By Jack Shafer

(Reuters) - The Washington journalism establishment, which allows federal officials to go off the record every minute on the minute, got a little picky this week after Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. invited reporters and editors over for an off-the-record meeting about the Department of Justice's handling of the investigations of national security leaks to Fox News Channel and the Associated Press.

New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson sent her pithy regrets: "We will not be attending the session at DOJ. It isn't appropriate for us to attend an off-the-record meeting with the attorney general. Our Washington bureau is aggressively covering the department's handling of leak investigations at this time." The AP sent a similar snub, as did CNN, McClatchy Newspapers, the Huffington Post, CBS News, NBC News, Reuters and Fox News.

"If the government wants to justify its pursuit of journalists, they ought to do it in public," McClatchy's James Asher said.

What made the face-off so delicious was the way it pitted two self-righteous and pompous entities against each other. On the one side, you've got the government, which wanted to keep secret the thinking behind its devious, but legal, series of subpoenas and search warrants directed at journalists, while still blabbing about it. On the other, the press, which swoons for these sorts of sit-downs as long as the meeting isn't public knowledge, because such revelations makes them look like suck-ups and collaborators, which they can be.

Had Holder stealthily invited a couple of bureau chiefs and editors over to his place for afternoon cookies and milk to ask for their help in getting out of his PR pickle, of appearing anti-press, I'm sure most would have obliged him and maintained the requested omertà. But that wasn't the attorney general's strategy. In order to relieve the anti-Holder political pressure the press has exerted in the past two weeks and the calls from several corners for his resignation, Holder needed to publicize the soiree. The purpose of the meeting was not to explain or apologize or promise to change Department of Justice policy. The purpose of the meeting was to have a meeting, and to begin a "dialogue" with the press over its "concerns" so the press would give Holder some breathing room.

Exactly who was using whom still needs to be sorted out. Was Holder exploiting the press by pretending to seek its counsel, or was the press boosting its own status by telling Holder to shove his off-the-record invitation? One Twitter user almost untangled the weave of hypocrisy with this succinct sentence: "Journos decline a secret talk w/ #DOJ about how DOJ can best respect & protect journos' rights to secret talks."

Because the press is too decentralized to congeal into an effective cartel, the Department of Justice found another way to make its hour-long Thursday afternoon get-together happen.

Journalists from the Washington Post, Politico, the Wall Street Journal, New York's Daily News and the New Yorker agreed to attend, and Holder whispered into their ears his minor words of remorse. How do we know what Holder whispered if the meeting was off the record, which literally means the information can't be shared? Because the Department of Justice relented, allowing the press to "describe what occurred during the meeting in general terms," as the Washington Post‘s coverage put it.

(Additional meetings like yesterday's are planned for the near future, and given that they're no longer off the record you can expect more news organizations to attend. My employer, Reuters, citing the changed ground rules, sent representatives to a session today.)

The Washington Post‘s news account of yesterday's meeting, which cites "participants" as its sources, finds Holder "acknowledging criticism" that his department had grown too aggressive. Acknowledging criticism is not the same as agreeing, of course, as all passive-aggressive adepts know.

The Post story continues to explain Holder's "broad commitment" to "update internal guidelines," as if antiquated guidelines were the problem and a new review the solution. But the existing guidelines are fine. Self-imposed and observed by both Democratic and Republican administrations, the current Department of Justice guidelines remind attorneys general to walk "en pointe" whenever contemplating the subpoena of information from journalists or the issuance of search warrants.

Fine-tuning the guidelines won't protect reporters and their sources as long as the attorney general still goes wild with subpoenas and search warrants in leak investigations, as Holder did in the Fox News case and his deputy, James Cole, did in the AP case. Politico reported that "Holder stopped short of offering any concrete changes to the guidelines."

As for a "shield law" to protect the press, to which Holder and President Barack Obama have lent so much lip service, allow me to direct you to an authority on that topic, journalist Matthew Cooper. Cooper, who fought all the way to the Supreme Court a subpoena to appear before a grand jury investigating the Valerie Plame case, writes this week in the National Journal that the shield law currently under consideration by Congress wouldn't have been much help to him, the AP or Fox News had it been on the books a decade ago. And he's right.

If you resist looking at the current spat in the freeze frame of current events, you might view Holder as sincerely troubled by the press corps' reaction, as a new Daily Beast piece does, and see his efforts as an attempt to reset the press-government relationship to the way it once was.

Maybe the press has learned the value of showing the White House a little backbone. Perhaps Holder regrets nothing and is buying time with gestures so he can resign on his own terms after the noise stops. Or maybe we're all overinterpreting, and all that has transpired this week is the standard Washington power dance, with duplicity and fatuousness by all.

I'd pick door No. 4.

(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)