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Foot dragging in the White House Press Corps

10/09/02 12:00AM By Bill Seamans
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(Host) Commentator Bill Seamans says that the relationship between the Bush administration and the press may be about to change.

(Seamans) The media trade magazine American Journalism Review has sounded a battle cry: It's time for the news media to stand up to the Bush administration's assault on the freedom of information. Editor Rem Rieder writes that "there are some things that are so outrageous that they require not a campaign but a crusade, a call to the barricades.... American journalism is facing one of them now. "

Rieder adds that "Little by little, step by step, sources of information are being choked off and since 9/11, national security has been invoked as the reason for withholding information, in many instances laughably." So how can the media rise to the barricades? Rieder's answer: "News organizations are going to have to get beyond their traditional - and generally well founded - reluctance to enter the fray." He said, in effect, that editors and reporters need a swift kick in their computers to stop foot-dragging and taking "no" for an answer.

This all echoes the growing frustration with what President Bush's critics call his non-information policy. This rumble seems to have begun when Attorney John Ashcroft bluntly told the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was inquiring about eroding civil liberties: "To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists."

However lethargic or timid the media may be, the commentariat rose to the anti-Ashcroft barricades. They said when dissent is called disloyal and unpatriotic, free speech dies. When free speech dies so does democracy as we know it. A Washington Post scribe called Ashcroft President Bush's "minister of fear."

But despite the outcry, there was a confession by some well-known journalists that they were, in fact, being intimidated. Liberal writer Michael Kinsley admitted to self-censorship whenever he was inclined to criticize Bush. He said he has been listening to his "Inner Ashcroft".

Among others, USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro comments that Bush's information control is so strict that Shapiro says, "It diminishes one's passion for obtaining interviews because the Bush official will be mentally reading from a public relations script." The Chicago Tribune's Clarence Page suggests that top Bush officials seem to be toying with the press. Page says, "Donald Rumsfeld is thoroughly entertaining without being informative. It's a wonderful show - entertains us all immensely - but it doesn't tell us anything."

From my perspective far away from the Beltway, perhaps this information-impaired condition is really the fault of the Washington press corps themselves and that they need a swift kick in their computers to stop foot-dragging and taking "no" for an answer.

This is Bill Seamans.

Award-winning journalist Bill Seamans is a former correspondent and bureau chief for ABC News in the Middle East.


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