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September 16, 2003

Special to PressThink: Interview with Todd Gitlin

The critic Todd Gitlin discusses John Ashcroft's contempt for the press and the weak solidarity among journalists.

The Attorney General is touring the country, giving speeches about the urgency of renewing the Patriot Act, much in the style of a political campaign. At these stops he has said things like: “Their murderous vision of an America in flames has united this nation,” speaking of course about terrorists, the enemy, the perpetrators of 9/11. At several stops he agrees to be questioned by television reporters only.

In Buffalo and Philadelphia, Secret Service agents have stopped “print” reporters from reaching John Ashcroft. At a stop in North Carolina, aides prevented direct questioning by Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times. “Eric, we’re going to talk to local reporters first,” an aide says. This is from Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post:

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.”

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, and the author of many works of media cricitism and political analysis. I interviewed him about what’s going on with Ashcroft and the press. He had this to say:

PressThink: In this move to divide the press, what form of politics is the Attorney General practicing?

Todd Gitlin: Ashcroft is practicing sheer demagoguery. He knows that, with niftily chosen sound bites, he can dominate local television, which harbors few practitioners of anything that can be called journalism. Since most local TV journalists are little more than stenographers, he can safely stay “on message,” rally his partisans, and keep annoying critics at bay. This is the politics of no-politics, the politics of l’etat-c’est-moi.

PressThink: But what does John Ashcroft know about the American press that perhaps the press does not know about itself?

Todd Gitlin: He knows that TV reporters can be relied upon not to show solidarity with their repelled print colleagues. Just as reporters at Bush’s last press conference refused to bridle when he acknowledged—take that, minions!—that he was calling on them from a script, he knows that the press corps is no corps at all, but a band of competitors more committed to seeking advantage over rivals than protecting the public’s right to know.

PressThink: The Attorney General travels with “press” people and if it’s anyone’s job to herd reporters around, it’s theirs. So it’s extra creepy when Secret Service guys begin protecting Ashcroft from the likes of the New York Times and City Paper. We cannot say it’s illegal, (I don’t think) but we can say it’s a sign. How do you read that sign?

Todd Gitlin: Let’s face it: This administration has utter contempt for the press and the public. They lie inveterately. (Consider the EPA lies, the Iraq lies, the Niger lies, the Houston school lies, the “death tax” lies, the tax refund lies.) They deny and censor. (Global warming.) Their idea of truth is faith-based. They live in a bunker. It would be astounding if Ashcroft opened himself to serious questioning. Which administration official does that?

PressThink: You say that TV reporters are showing zero solidarity with their colleagues stranded behind the ropes. I agree. But I can hear them saying, “what are we supposed to do…walk away, go on strike, leave Ashcroft unquestioned?” What are the honorable options for a journalist of conscience who happens to be in the favored group of reporters allowed to question the Attorney General? How would you imagine “press solidarity” working in a case like this?

Todd Gitlin: At the minimum, television reporters should include in their reports the fact that Ashcroft won’t take questions from print reporters. That’s news.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 16, 2003 9:08 AM