Ashcroft proceeded to preach about the media's responsibilities. "You are in a position to help this country in a special way," he told the editors. "We need to ask ourselves, how does the kind of exposure to violence in our culture that we provide really affect the way in which we live? What does it do to children who [see] hundreds of thousands of acts of violence on television, who are conditioned in video games to do things which are abhorrent to the human spirit?"
He hoped the editors would "think about ways" they could "make the kind of contribution that will improve the culture in which we live."
A few days later, Ashcroft made his own contribution to the culture in which we live, deciding that Timothy McVeigh's execution would be broadcast over closed-circuit TV to a couple hundred bombing victims, survivors and relatives in Oklahoma City. Normally only a handful of people get to watch executions, but because the Oklahomans "may be the largest group of crime victims in our history ... the Department of Justice must make special provisions to assist [their] needs."
In one of Ashcroft's speeches, he said that pretend violence on TV was harmful to society. In the other, he said that real violence -- even an eerily nonviolent lethal injection -- on TV would heal.
Missouri's most powerful son now reflects the contradiction between what all of us do and what we say. We gripe about violence on TV, yet we eagerly tune in for it. Nobody wants McVeigh to have his way, yet if he got the public execution he has asked for, it would be the biggest ratings-grabber ever. Ashcroft, while nodding in the direction of the First Amendment, told the media that he wanted "to restrict a mass murderer's access to the public podium," although prisoners in Terre Haute's Special Confinement Unit are allowed to use their fifteen-minute phone calls however they want. "If the news media conducts an interview with Timothy McVeigh," Ashcroft said, "I would ask them for self-restraint.... I would ask that the news media not become Timothy McVeigh's co-conspirators in his assault on America's public safety and upon America itself."
Shining a light into the rotting corners of McVeigh's mind might actually provide some useful information. But the United States government has an interest in making sure McVeigh doesn't have a chance to, for example, answer a reporter's question about how he learned to appreciate acts of "mass destruction" while serving in the Gulf War with Fort Riley's Big Red One.
But when Ashcroft luxuriates in the kind of intimate relationship he has with Rich Hood, it's easy to see why he thinks he can manipulate the media. (A few days after Ashcroft's speech to the editors, Hood wrote a fawning editorial about Ashcroft's performance so far.)
Ashcroft's attempts to restrict public access to McVeigh's execution, however, aren't unique, says Sandy Davidson, a professor of communications law at the University of Missouri in Columbia. "Ashcroft has inherited a tradition of great restraint," she says, noting that courts have turned down at least four previous requests to televise executions.
As a First Amendment scholar, Davidson says she is "generally a proponent of full access to anything the government does -- and where does the government display its power more potently than with an execution?"
And the Show-Me State has the distinction of being the last to host a public execution. On May 21, 1937, a few hundred people crowded into a stockade near the courthouse in Galena, a river town southwest of Springfield. A drifter named Roscoe Jackson had confessed to murdering a traveling salesman named Pearl Bozarth, and a Taney County jury had sentenced him to death. Just before 6 a.m., a priest led Jackson to the gallows. Jackson stood there with the noose around his neck and told the crowd, "Well, now, folks, it's not everybody that realizes what it takes to die. It's easy when it comes accidental, but it's not so easy when it comes gradual. Well, be good folks."
An eleven-foot plunge snapped Jackson's neck; deputies tossed pieces of the rope out into the crowd for souvenirs.
Davidson can't help wondering, "Do we like blood sports? Do we want the justice system to become a public spectacle?"
The evolution of public access to the courts indicates maybe we do. "The attitude toward cameras in the courtroom changed in part because of technology. It used to be that cameras in the courtroom were so huge that they were obtrusive," Davidson notes. "But technology has changed, and now the cameras are little. They're not obtrusive."
More significant might be an early-'90s Supreme Court decision allowing victim-impact statements. "The case involved the stabbing death of a woman," Davidson says. "There had been multiple stabbings; one child died, another little child was ripped open terribly but survived, and the grandmother was able to tell the jury about how this little boy suffered. There was a time when that kind of information was considered too inflammatory for a jury, but our standards of what is too inflammatory change. Have we now reached a point in society -- after all, it's been many years since Roscoe Jackson died -- that we are now ready as a society to have more sanitized executions made public?"
Davidson figures most people wouldn't consider the question until it came time to decide whether to turn on the TV.
This week, members of the media are going through orientation in the Chestnut Room at Terre Haute's Holiday Inn, setting up their satellite trucks on the fairgrounds near the prison, obtaining clearance for caterers, renting golf carts for faster rides to the food-vending and demonstration areas, suffering Porta Potties. All for an event that Department of Justice guidelines say "the media will not be permitted to film, audiorecord or photograph."