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From AJR,   October/November 2003  issue

Giving Print the Silent Treatment   

Is it becoming a trend for politicians to shun interviews with print journalists?

By Rachel Smolkin

Attorney General John Ashcroft is seldom lumped with Arnold "The Terminator" Schwarzenegger and Jesse "The Mind" née "The Body" Ventura, but all three have displayed a penchant for playing mum with the press.

Ah-nold announced his candidacy for California governor on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and found time to dish with "Access Hollywood" but didn't grant his first print interviews until September 4--nearly a month after his debut in the recall fray.

Former governor Ventura declared "war" on media "jackals," implored Minnesotans to boycott TV and print news and prohibited interviews with local reporters--then changed his mind and said he'd do interviews, but only with certain people and without tape recorders.

Ashcroft's cross-country tour to promote the USA Patriot Act, the antiterrorism law that heightened law enforcement powers, has provoked seething columns from scribes denied post-speech audiences with him because he was "not talking to print"--only to television reporters.

"There's a long tradition of this," says Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. "Most politicians view the press with a combination of fear and contempt."

In North Carolina, former Sen. Jesse Helms, often elusive during campaign season, refused to participate in 1996 election grids (charts in which readers could compare candidates' credentials and opinions) compiled by the Charlotte Observer and other state newspapers. But Observer reporters "went out of our way to try to catch him and ask him these questions" says Jim Morrill, the paper's political writer. "We saw this as a service to readers" and labored to find answers instead of printing blank spaces under Helms' name. "We would say, 'Helms declined to talk, but the record shows that....' "

Even Arizona Sen. John McCain, a media darling because of his accessibility during his 2000 presidential bid, has a long-standing feud with his local paper, the Arizona Republic. He banished a Republic reporter from his "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus, forcing her to trail in a rental car.

In the latest media-politico tango, Los Angeles Times reporter Joe Mathews wrote in a September 5 article that Schwarzenegger met with reporters from the Times, Riverside's Press-Enterprise and the Associated Press for interviews limited to about 20 minutes. They were his first one-on-one sessions with print reporters, Mathews wrote, apparently "aimed in part at answering criticism that Schwarzenegger was avoiding California's print media. 'You can't say that anymore,' spokesman Sean Walsh said."

Walsh told AJR that the media have had access to Schwarzenegger at "numerous press availabilities." "We understand the frustration of all folks in the media, both print, radio and television," he says. "Everyone wants Arnold and we could literally sit from now until Election Day doing one-on-one interviews."

David Lauter, the L.A. Times deputy metro editor supervising recall coverage, said in a September 9 interview that the campaign has "rather notably switched their tactics in the last four or five days and are much more accessible than they initially were." He notes the celebrity candidate commands cameras and initially "from a campaign standpoint, there arguably was less need to talk to the print press."

Sacramento Bee Political Editor Amy Chance cuts Schwarzenegger a little slack. "All candidates seek to control their media access to fit their own goals for their own campaigns," Chance says. "To that extent, I don't see Schwarzenegger as different from any of the others. Perhaps the difference is that there is a larger appetite for interviews with Schwarzenegger than there is for [Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz] Bustamante."

But Howard Altman, editor of the alternative weekly Philadelphia City Paper, is far less sympathetic about Ashcroft's tactics. Altman wrote August 28 that when a Secret Service agent barred him from following television reporters to a press conference with Ashcroft at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center, "I was not just steamed, I was flabbergasted." Altman says he complained to the press office but got no response. His column, dispersed on the Internet and cited in an editorial in Texas' Wichita Falls Times Record News, provided a more effective protest forum.

Buffalo News columnist Donn Esmonde recounted a similar experience in a September 9 piece headlined "Ashcroft's methods hurt his own cause." The only media granted post-speech access to Ashcroft were local TV reporters, he said. Esmonde wrote: "My pen is not a weapon of mass destruction."

The attorney general's a busy man, responds Justice Department spokesman Jorge Martinez. In a brief telephone interview, Martinez denied that Ashcroft puts the kibosh on the print press and cited Iowa, New Hampshire, Raleigh-Durham and Cleveland as places where Ashcroft has engaged with scribes. "We try to seek a balance," he says. "Obviously the attorney general cannot grant every single request because of time constraints."

Washington Post reporter Dan Eggen, who covers the Justice Department, arranged an interview with Ashcroft in Boise, Idaho. Eggen says Ashcroft talked to all the TV reporters and a few print ones individually for about five minutes each. However, some print reporters were told the interviews were for TV only. Eggen says "access to the attorney general is limited for reporters in general, and it's particularly limited for the print journalists."

William Powers, media critic for National Journal, says politicians are less likely to sever press ties than in decades past because of the media's power. "They have to play the game with us," Powers says. "When they don't, they make news for an outdated practice and end up paying a high price because they look bad. Whatever they gain by not talking to us, they look like they're afraid of something."

But Ashcroft and the Bush administration have effectively controlled the media--and limited their access. And some politicians don't lose much by ignoring the press, a reality that constrains even dogged reporters.

Altman, who hasn't gotten the silent treatment from local politicians, says the press shouldn't accept it from the national officials either.

"To exclude one form of media is an outrage," he says. "I think that people in our business should be outraged and the public should be outraged. This is not about me. It's about us. It's about what we do. It's about our jobs."