Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, who is continuing his tour of the country to promote the Patriot Act, has at several stops, including Buffalo and Philadelphia, refused to speak to print reporters. While television correspondents can often breeze right in, their newspaper colleagues are kept at bay by Secret Service agents doing the bidding of the nation's chief law enforcement official, who prefers audiences of handpicked enthusiasts and interviews with local television reporters.
According to Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock, Ashcroft wants to explain "key facts directly to the American people" and not have to subject himself to "as much of a filter from people who are already invested in having a different view of it."
Of course he does. What public official wouldn't prefer a stenographer to an interlocutor? Ashcroft, like the president he serves, wishes to conduct the public's business in an echo chamber. With aplomb and no hint of bad conscience, they practice the politics of no-politics, the politics of l'etat, c'est moi.
Like president, like attorney general. For example, on March 6, in a rare press conference on the verge of war in Iraq, George W. Bush joked that the choice of which reporters would be permitted to question him was scripted in advance. But he did put some of the tougher-minded reporters in their place, passing them over as if they were overeager sixth-graders.
Ashcroft knows that, with niftily chosen sound bites, he can dominate credulous local television, which harbors few practitioners of the probe and deep focus that can legitimately be called journalism. This has allowed him largely to stay "on message," rally his partisans and keep annoying critics at bay. The exception was an interview with ABC News' Peter Jennings this month in which Jennings did ask some pointed, specific questions about immigrant detention and other civil liberties infractions. No doubt Ashcroft will not be doing that again soon.
Television journalists are a competitive bunch, and they are loath to show solidarity with peers who have been stranded beyond the ropes. But it is wrong to go on with business as usual in this instance. Instead of enabling this highhanded behavior, they should solicit questions from print colleagues and use them, or ask Ashcroft on the air why he wants to reach local viewers but not local readers. (Don't they need to know about the Patriot Act?) Surely it behooves favored television reporters to note for their listeners that the administration plays favorites. That's news.
Ashcroft's avoidance of the print press reveals something important about this administration — the zealotry with which it goes about protecting itself from scrutiny. This zealotry is linked with the paranoid streak that, as the historian Richard Hofstadter taught us long ago, runs like a bright thread through American history. Ashcroft's segregation of journalists is paranoid, in the sense Hofstadter meant, because it turns fantasies of persecution into a conspiracy among print reporters to deny the attorney general a fair hearing. So he denies them access.
This is a bad twist on already unsavory precedents. In 1980, Ronald Reagan avoided reporters so devotedly they once felt compelled to put on a skit in which they interviewed a painting of him on the tarmac. In 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton delivered his message "unfiltered" to the voters by appearing on MTV, "Larry King Live" and Don Imus — in part because he preferred softball questions.
The Bush administration apparently figures that with this approach, you fool enough of the people enough of the time. In attention-span politics, you don't care that some people will see through the smoke, and you don't have to keep everything secret. You just assume that attention will fragment and move on. The next news cycle will focus elsewhere. Television works that way.
Ashcroft is betting that the press corps has no core, that reporters are more committed to seeking advantage over rivals than protecting the public's right to know.
It's past time for journalists to hold him to account.
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and the author of "Letters to a Young Activist" (Basic Books, 2003). Jay Rosen is chairman of the department of journalism.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times