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September 16, 2003

John Ashcroft: National Explainer

"Not talking to print. Only talking to television." Why the Attorney General feels justified doing that.

Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock says her boss, with few exceptions, is only granting short interviews to local TV stations as a way of “explaining key facts directly to the American people and not having as much of a filter from people who are already invested in having a different view of it.” Comstock indicated unhappiness with some print reporters who have raised civil liberties concerns about the expanded police powers provided by the 2001 law: “In some cases we can look at a local newspaper and some people have reported on it over and over and it hasn’t been very accurate. Some news writers on this tend to be a little more editorial than news.”

That’s via Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post. Here spokeswoman Comstock is trying to explain why certain journalists—and their questions—are kept legitimately away from the Attorney General (muscle provided by the Secret Service), while other journalists are allowed in to do their watchdog duty. She is also trying to explain why the legitimately banned all work in the print medium, while the acceptable questioners of Ashcroft work for television. Therefore she—which means Ashcroft, the boss—must be engaged in some press think.

We find the following rationales:

Facts Filtered. Attorney General Ashcroft wants to explain key facts about the Patriot Act to the public, but some have a different view and they filter everything through it. Newspapers and magazines do not let the facts speak; the filtering there has become chronic. Short interviews with local television means “not having as much of a filter.” This also means the American people will get more facts because they are getting more face time with Ashcroft, national explainer. The interviews are kept short because…. well, never mind why they’re short. The point is the filterers have been unfair and their rights have been terminated.

Repeating Reporters. John Ashcroft, in the middle of his town-to-town speaking tour on behalf of the Patriot Act’s neglected but essential facts, has grown worried about reporters who keep returning to the subject. Some have “reported on it over and over.” These frequent filers of Patriot Act news get less accurate the more journalism they do. “In some cases we can look at a local newspaper and some people have reported on it over and over and it hasn’t been very accurate.” If local newspaper people find themselves behind the ropes their status is earned. Newspapers deliberately harbor repeat reporters, and they are unreliable— repeatedly so.

Dark Tend: Opinion. There is a worrisome trend in the new, unfairly filtered, fact-dropping, civil liberty-loving, too much invested, over and over, enough already style of reporting on the Patriot Act. We’ve noticed it. The “newswriters” (spokeswoman’s term) and their friends and allies, the printers, are putting opinions into space that is only available because the key facts were earlier filtered out and dumped somewhere. So it’s not just the facts that are failing to get through to the American people; it’s that opinion pours through to them in print. Yet the whole point of the Attorney General’s city-to-city tour is not giving opinions but “explaining key facts to the American people.”

Facts getting filtered, nonstop. Reporters repeatedly reporting. Writers with opinions, printing them in the newspaper. People invested in their views. Let them all scribble. National explainer and his television crew are about to start question time.

The scene again according to City Paper in Philly.

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.”

Go here for a recent Ashcroft speech on the “breathless reports and baseless hysteria” surrounding the Patriot Act.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 16, 2003 5:13 PM