Reagan and the press: finding a style that fits

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The lottery presidential press conference probably won't occur again -- not during this administration. That's what Reagan people here are saying. The reason: In the eyes of those close to the President the press conference -- where both Mr. Reagan and the questioners knew, through a lottery, who would be called on -- ended up in a rather cut-and-dried process. White House aides thought it satisfactory but a little dull.

It isn't because the conference was unproductive, the Reagan people say. Actually, the questioners covered a wide array of subjects, and the President, as the White House saw it, handled himself well enough.

"It was a little like a classroom with students calling on the teacher," one longtime observer of presidential press conferences said.

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"The questions were good enough, but we need a little combativeness from the press if the President is truly to be put on his mettle. Also, there must be competitiveness among the questioners if you are to get the best, the most compelling questions."

The lottery did mandate a kind of fairness. As set up, only those reporters who attended a White House briefing March 5 were entitled to participate in the President's jelly-bean-jar selection ceremony.

Or, at least, that was the way it was set up initially. In the end, Jim Brady, the White House press secretary, relented and opened up a few question slots to those who came to the conference March 6.

But for the most part, the lottery did mean that the White House "regulars" had a much better chance of being picked to ask the questions.

However, there were problems:

* When questioning is competitive, a potential questioner simply won't participate if his question is asked before the President gets to him. That is, he won't rise -- or raise his hand.

But, say a reporter is No. 13 in the lottery and wishes to ask the President about his economic program or about El Salvador -- except that this question has already been asked. Does he say, "I pass" when the President gets to him?

Not at all. The questioner won't miss that opporunity to shine on national TV. Instead, he will ask a variation on the question or improvise into some other subject that may or may not be worth talking about.

* The lottery opens the door to questioners who are fairly new at the game and, sometimes, not too professional -- reporters who might well not be recognized by the President under competitive circumstances.

Thus, there were some questions March 6 that drew snickers from the other reporters -- simply because of the unprofessional manner in which they were asked. (One reporter made a short speech first. Another mounted a denunciation.Another raised a philosophical question.)

So the White House probably will go back to the competitive press conference next time. However, the context will likely still be low-keyed, with reporters asked simply to keep quiet and raise their hands.

If, after a while, the President concludes that genteel press conferences simply aren't beneficial to him, that they are so dull that people are not looking in via television, then he may return to the familiar format of recent years -- with reporters on their feet vying for his attention.

Most White House reporters hope the President will find a way to meet with them on a regular basis without having to return to the so-called screaming room. They are acutely aware of the negative image of the press in the eyes of the public under such circumstances.

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