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September 9, 2003

Blocking Assignment: Ashcroft's End Run

The Attorney General won't talk to "print," only TV. How does he get away with that? Ask the television crews breezing by.

First in Philadelphia, then again in Buffalo, Federal agents were ordered to block “print” reporters from questioning Attorney General John Ashcroft during events where he defended the Patriot Act and talked about the urgency of renewing it.

Any legitmate reason Ashcroft could have for admitting CNN and WKBW (fostering public discussion, explaining yourself to the people you serve, giving as good as you get in debate) applies equally well to City Paper, the Buffalo News, or the Los Angeles Times. If the Attorney General draws a distinction, he does so illegitimately. The possible reasons are: talking over the heads of reporters entirely, favoring the weaker questions of some inexperienced local broadcast crews, punishing “print” correspondents for their more challenging coverage, or just a demonstration of raw power over the press. All that is clear.

Not clear is why television reporters participate in it. Ashcroft has plenty of power already. Why grant him the additional muscle to avoid scrutiny by one half the press tribe? I know how media competition works, but I also know how legitimacy works. And surely the more serious competition is between an arrogant Attorney General who believes he can get away with it, and the journalists who are either his victims (print) or enablers (TV). Do television correspondents just breeze right in while their newspaper colleagues are kept at bay by Secret Service agents? Apparently. This is from Howard Altman of Citypaper in Philly:

You can’t go in here,” says the little Secret Service agent, who was very nice to me the last time we met, inside Cuba Libre, when we were both awaiting a visit from that revered cigar aficionado Bill Clinton. As the flock disappears down a hall in a hurried scurry, the bespectacled woman in the black dress who could have been Ainsley, the perky Republican from The West Wing, looks at me and waxes apologetic. “I am sorry,” she says as the last of the camera crews whiz by. “But he is not talking to print. Only talking to television.” Pens may no longer be as mighty as the camera, but apparently they make Ashcroft and his guardians squeamish. I protest and try to follow TV. This time around the little Secret Service agent is not so fun. He orders me escorted away from the scene.

Creepy, right?

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 9, 2003 7:08 PM