Mr. Reagan and the press

It is reasonable for the Reagan administration to want to stop disclosures of sensitive national security information to the press by talkative officials. This problem has beset most administrations. Hence the public will doubtless be sympathetic to President Reagan's crackdown on leaks - and the leakers - of classified information.

But the President's new press policy appears to go much farther - extending to all news interviews with federal officials unless first cleared with the White House. Such a cry of concern has gone up from the news media that White House aide James Baker is reviewing the issue. He needs swiftly to clarify the new policy if the President is to avoid a damaging confrontation with the press.

This is an important issue because it goes to the heart of the functioning of a democratic government. Mr. Reagan is not the first president to discover how chatty official Washington can become when a reporter is around. It is not a matter of leaking genuine national security information, a practice that violates the law. It is a matter of providing information which enables the reporter - and public - better to understand not only the purpose and substance of government policies but also the process by which policies are made. This means that disclosing doubts, uncertainties, and controversies within the bureaucracy also become a part of the ''news flow''.

Should the White House be bothered by such disclosures? It can be argued, perhaps, that interviews such as the one granted by David Stockman to the Atlantic Monthly damage adminstration policy. Yet more is lost in the long run by a policy of stifling such interviews than by allowing federal officials to exercise their own sense of judgment. The fact is, the press is an essential actor in the decisionmaking process and, contrary to public perceptions about it , often a positive force. Does it not, for instance, serve the public interest to learn (via a ''leak'') that if Mr. Reagan were to get all the military hardware he wanted the five-year defense budget would be much larger than officially stated? The President may not like his defense figures challenged in this way, but certainly the national defense debate is more meaningful - and honest - if such discrepancies are aired.

The administration itself often floats an idea to test public reaction. It is in fact hard not to be cynical about an effort to stem leaks when any administration - by choosing what to say and when to say it - in effect manipulates the press to suit its own political or other purposes. That does not necessarily mean it is dishonest; the press itself errs in assuming Machiavellian purposes behind every press release. But no self-respecting reporter stops at just taking press releases or official statements at face value - not if he or she seeks to inform the public about what is going on.

Any clampdown on informal, one-on-one interviews with officials is regrettable because it impedes the flow of legitimate news and thus a better, more balanced public understanding of government policies. It also heightens the gap due to the infrequency of presidential press conferences. Mr. Reagan, although a good communicator, has held only six news conferences in his first year in office (compared to 21, say, for President Carter); he apparently feels he does not perform well in this particular forum. He thus risks feeding a perception of a ''closed'' administration - not to mention a fearful and suspicious one - by also limiting press interviews.

We do not think this is the image the President wants or intends. This is why he should remove the present confusion and make clear that his new guidelines are not as cramping as they sound (or, if they are, revise them). Whatever his orders, most news will continue to come through the back door. He might as well be in step with the democratic process.

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