Did John Ashcroft Scare You?

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft listens to journalists' questions during a news conference at the FBI-sponsored International Law Enforcement Academy in Budapest on June 11, 2002. Ashcroft countered criticism from civil liberties groups over the way the United States was holding a suspected al Qaeda operative.
REUTERS
Attorney General John Ashcroft inspires mighty intense feelings, pro and con. In his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer shares some of what readers think.

There's been radio silence from the press conference-crazed attorney general's office since John Ashcroft's bungled and panicky announcement in Moscow last week of the ever-shrinking radioactive bomb plot.

A sudden lack of news is it? No indictments to hype? The republic is suddenly safe?

Or was there a trip to the presidential woodshed for Minister Ashcroft? Stay tuned.

I can report there was no lack of noise in the Against the Grain inbox after last week's column, "John Ashcroft: Minister of Fear." As usual, you readers provided more wit and insight than I did.

As a general rule, my e-mail runs about 2-1 opposing whatever it is I have written. People who take the time to write are usually irritated or outraged. Not this time

Most writers concurred with my argument that Ashcroft has used "scare-tactics to grab headlines, control the news agenda and make himself look good." A good number thought I was too easy on the attorney general, and many more thought I should have been pointing my fingering at his boss, the president, instead.

The critics – and don't get me wrong, there were tons of them – often argued that I glossed over the real challenge the government faces in informing the public of threats without being unduly alarmist.

From Kathi McGowan: "I disagree with you! I see the media's, 'damned if you do, damned if you don't,' attitude with publicizing terrorist threats to the public. First, the criticism of the government not warning us about the September 11th attack. Now, over-reacting to a possible dirty-bomb attack. WHAT DO YOU WANT!… United we stand, divided we fall. Ever hear of that?"

From James McGlinch: "You in the news media are starting to get really old. First you complain about the president knowing things and not telling you. Now you complain when the government tells you too much. Why don't you quit your bitching and move to Afghanistan or even Iraq? See how the freedom of the press goes over there

Ashcroft's critics often argued that he has diminished the government's ability to issue credible warnings when the real thing comes along.

From Lucy Stone: "In this citizen's opinion one of the biggest problems with this administration's strange use of fear mongering (Ashcroft is the worse offender, but by no means alone) for what often appears to be CYA political purposes, or at least the timing seems so blatantly political, is that they have unequivocally passed into the 'boy who cried wolf' stage and when they do have a real and credible threat, or when they have stopped the real thing, will any one even be listening any longer?… This administration's credibility is in serious trouble, and that's trouble for the whole damn country."

From Stephen M. Potopa: "Thank you for saying what I have been thinking for some time. Mr. Ashcroft's frequent announcements are just a way of keeping the war talk on the front page. They constitute the cheapest of political theatre. Mr. Fleischer's denials of this theatre constitute just another way of shouting 'Un-American' at whoever dares to doubt or ask a question."

From Linda O'Brien: "You got it almost just right -- except you forgot that Ashcroft is totally Bush's toady. Anything he says you can bet comes at Bush's order… The Justice Dept. is definitely operating as the 'Ministry of Fear,' but it's only in the service of the king."

Several writers were most concerned with the civil rights issues relating to Ashcroft's 9/11 policies.

From Joseph Mueller: "You hit the nail on the head; John Ashcroft is a man out of control. I, like most Americans, am a little on edge over the whole terrorism scenario, but Mr. Ashcroft seems bent on having us believe we are sheep in a den of wolves. It is becoming clear that his aim is to rob us of our civil liberties by convincing us that drastic security measures are needed.. John Ashcroft needs to be replaced, he is a threat to our liberty."

From Richard Osborne: "I have to agree with you on this one. Ashcroft is beginning to annoy even a right-winger like me. We don't need the Sheriff of Nottingham running our Justice Dept. It concerns me that they re-classify people and then deny them their Constitutional rights."

Complaints about the press came from the left and right.

From Scott Willits: "There are those among us, myself included, partisan or not, who HAVE been "shocked, shocked" by this administration's cynical manipulation of the press, not just since 9-11, but since before the stolen election. It has been infuriating to be a conscientious news consumer [and] watch time after time after time as some story that SHOULD bring some accountability to the Bushies be ignored altogether by American mainstream media, or at the least given short shrift when one department or another of the Executive branch jumps in front of the cameras, ready once again to deploy Weapons of Mass Distraction against defenseless American media consumers."

From Tony: "I assume it was ok to scare the rest of the public with all the over reporting you guys did. How about child abductions… Again, the media is spreading the fear. Maybe if the media backed off a bit, people would be a bit more optimistic. Please take responsibility for your role in scaring the public."

Point well taken.

And thanks to all the writers.


Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is Editorial Director of CBSNews.com based in Washington.

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Against the Grain

By Dick Meyer