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Dodging the Pen

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Even after a 30-city tour of America, Attorney General John Ashcroft hasn’t addressed journalists’ concerns with the PATRIOT Act. From…

Even after a 30-city tour of America, Attorney General John Ashcroft hasn’t addressed journalists’ concerns with the PATRIOT Act.

From the Fall 2003 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 37.

By Veronica Rodriguez

Two years after Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act, questions still linger about how the law might be used to infringe upon the constitutional rights of everyday Americans and the journalists who are their eyes and ears. But even after a nationwide publicity tour by Attorney General John Ashcroft — complete with buses, banners and pre-arranged audiences — many of those same questions remain unanswered . . . while a handful more were suddenly raised.

Since the PATRIOT Act was signed into law on Oct. 26, 2001, in reaction to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, both print and broadcast journalists have been on edge concerning a particular section of the law. Under Section 215 of the act, the Federal Bureau of Investigation can search a newsroom without having to prove that the owner of the records in question is under criminal investigation. To get a warrant — through a secret judicial action, no less — law enforcement officials would simply need to show that the order is “for an authorized investigation . . . to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.”

In addition, the PATRIOT Act makes it easier for government agents to trace phone numbers and tap computers if they consider the sources suspicious. With journalists throughout the country still covering the never-ending “war on terrorism,” media industry insiders say there is good reason to be concerned.

Although the provisions of Section 215 have been in effect for two years, the Justice Department has yet to disclose how many times the government has used its new powers against newsrooms, or under what circumstances it would. Ashcroft recently revealed that the section has never been used against bookstores and libraries, but made no such declaration concerning news operations. In response to journalists’ concerns, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press released a list of questions for reporters to ask Ashcroft during his PATRIOT Act tour. (See sidebar on page 39.)

Thirty cities and countless refusals for interviews later, those questions remain unanswered.

At each stop on what was widely regarded to be a “public relations” tour, Ashcroft spoke to a preselected audience of law enforcement officials and military veteran organizations: groups either under his ultimate authority or natural fans of the attorney general. Both print and broadcast media were welcomed, while the public was excluded.

However, many print reporters later complained that they were not allowed to attend the question-and-answer sessions with Ashcroft after his speeches, and that only local broadcast journalists were given private interviews. Howard Altman, editor in chief of the Philadelphia City Paper, and Dan Herbeck, a reporter for The Buffalo News, were both denied access to an Ashcroft Q&A session.

Altman, who attended Ashcroft’s speech in Philadelphia, said he was “escorted away” when he tried to follow local broadcast media to the session. Herbeck, who attended a speech in Buffalo, said Justice Department officials “politely but firmly” asked him and other print reporters to leave the area when they tried to join their broadcast brethren.

Altman and Herbeck weren’t alone in their complaints. Mark Corallo, director of public affairs for the Justice Department, said print reporters were excluded from the Q&A sessions in nine of the 30 cities Ashcroft spoke in, or approximately one-third of the time. The other two-thirds of the time, Corallo says, broadcast journalists each got an average of three-minute individual interviews, while print reporters were given between five and 15 minutes — in a press conference format.

“Television has a different need than print,” said Corallo, in explaining the attorney general’s decision to speak to the public through the airwaves. “Television is a visual medium.”

Three states and more than 160 cities, counties and towns across the country have already passed anti-PATRIOT Act resolutions. Equally frustrated, Congress has also taken a closer look at some of the act’s more far-reaching provisions, including wiretaps, library surveillance, warrants with delayed notice, and multi-jurisdiction warrants. On Oct. 2, Sens. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and Mike Crapo (D-Idaho) introduced a bill that would ensure that the civil liberties of the people are immune to America’s fight against terrorism.

In response to the political backlash, and to the surprise of many, the Bush administration authorized Ashcroft to travel the country — using taxpayer dollars — to tell his story about the PATRIOT Act. According to Corallo, Ashcroft went on tour to “a) thank law enforcement, and b) clear up the misconceptions” that the act is too far reaching.

Just how successful Ashcroft was in accomplishing the latter goal remains unclear, as organizations like the ACLU and the Bill of Rights Defense Committee say the Justice Department further hurt its cause by excluding the public and parts of the media from the tour. Furthermore, because Ashcroft only spoke to handpicked audiences, journalists were left to balance their stories by interviewing angry opponents of the act who protested outside each of the attorney general’s closed speeches.

“More people have become more disturbed about the PATRIOT Act,” said Nancy Talanian, director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, “so maybe it was successful in the way that people are becoming more aware of its dangers.”

Others believe that Ashcroft chose local broadcast journalists over national and major metro print reporters because it was easier for him to control the message. Altman, of the Philadelphia City Paper, says Ashcroft knew that print journalists ask questions “much more vigorously” than broadcasters do, and therefore decided not to subject himself to potential criticism.

“Print is much less apt to walk away with a 30-second sound bite,” Altman said.

Talanian, as well as countless newspaper editorial writers who took up the point during Ashcroft’s tour, agrees. “Print media asks troubling questions,” she said, “and he didn’t want to answer.”