Presidents and reporters

By , Godfrey Sperling Jr. is chief of the Monitor's Washington bureau.

All presidents seem to have difficulty understanding that there are perceptions other than their own as to what the facts of a situation are. That is what lies behind Ronald Reagan's current unhappiness with the press, particularly television.

The President has pulled back somewhat from his recent criticism of the press. But his aides say that he still has a feeling that the news media, principally TV, are not giving him a fair shake in portraying the economy and how he is dealing with it. He sees the recession being protracted by TV reporting of isolated incidents of individual hardship that paint a picture of the national scene that is bleaker than it really is -- and this, of itself, worsens economic conditions.

TV's problem is that in an effort to humanize the news -- or simply entertain -- it does tend to generalize and thus shade a position in one way or the other by focusing on individual cases. But the fact is that the President faces real economic difficulties, and many Americans are talking about it -- whether or not the TV cameras are focused on them.

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Asked recently whether such TV reports were delaying recovery, Charles Schultze, President Carter's chief adviser on the economy, replied: ''No. That's a new one to me. We complained about television. But we never said anything like that.''

It was, he said, Reaganomics and Mr. Reagan's insistence on keeping his current and upcoming income tax cuts in place and his unwillingness to seek substantial reductions in his defense budget that were really prolonging the recession. A continuation of this approach, he added, would mean any upturn would be ''short-lived.''

The press, by and large, is a mirror. Public figures like that mirror as long as it puts them in a good light. But when the mirror reflects something negative about presidents or what they are doing -- too often they cry ''foul.'' It is true that the media sometimes distort and oversimplify. But they are the messenger, not the message.

So the picture on TV may not be focused the way Mr. Reagan would like to have it. He can feel that if there were more emphasis on what he sees as positive signs -- the drop in inflation, the slight decrease in interest rates, for example -- this might provide what he calls a ''psychological'' boost to the recovery.

But that is the President's point of view. There are other views from expert observers who contend that every day Mr. Reagan continues to push forward with his supply-side economics he is leading the nation in the wrong direction.

So it is at least arguable that for TV and the print media to present a rosy and Reagan-approved picture of the economic scene might not be in the national interest. In fact, it could be construed as head-in-the-sand reporting.

On the Reagan foreign policy, too, there are differences of perception. For instance, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's top White House adviser on foreign affairs, thinks Reagan is getting too much advice on foreign policy from too many people -- and that these are for the most part ill-qualified to give counsel on the subject.

Brzezinski sees a President who has not involved himself sufficiently in foreign affairs and who, as a result, faces three great potential crises, in Europe, in the Mideast, and in Central America. These could come all at once, he warns.

There is thus more than one informed view of the great issues - and how the President is dealing with them. The media, and particularly TV, may or may not be telling the story the way the President cares to hear it. But in general their reports reflect the conditions existing under the President's own policies.

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