Is the press damaging Reagan?

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

Larry Speakes is beginning to say what Jody Powell and other press secretaries of recent presidents have said by midterm in their administrations: that the press is denigrating the President, making it difficult for him to govern.

Speakes, in his latest utterance on the subject, put it this way: ''Can the modern presidency survive the modern media? Can any man in public office stand up to the daily drumbeat of morning newspapers and the flashing symbols of evening news television shows?''

Speakes is particularly unhappy over what he calls the news media's tendency to downplay the President's success in bringing inflation down and, instead, to continually underscore the high unemployment rate.

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''Every night,'' says Speakes, ''we have seen the unemployed line up and march across the television screen, and I certainly would not be one to make light of the people who are unemployed....But why is it that 10.8 percent unemployment is news but 89.2 percent of Americans who are employed and enjoy the highest standard of living are not?''

Speakes has a point. The media always tend to stress the bad news. This is based on a theory that people, no matter what they say, are drawn to the negative headline rather than to one that says something positive.

But Speakes is wrong about the press being responsible for recent one-term presidencies. The media, in the end, are the messenger, not the message. Nixon's message was one of corruption in the White House. That was what prevented him from completing more than one term.

Ford really had a good press. Reporters liked him a lot. It can be argued that his pardoning of Nixon was the main reason Ford lost out in that razor-edge decision to Carter.

The media did not destroy Carter. Had it not been for the Kennedy challenge and the hostages-in-Iran problem Carter might have survived. But he was also the victim of a growing public desire to try new approaches to dealing with the economy.

So it was Carter's message, together with a likable opponent who had some different ideas about solving economic problems, that brought about the demise of the Carter administration after just four years.

Lyndon Johnson was only elected once. But Vietnam, not the media, did him in.

Eisenhower had two terms. And, while popular, he always had a press to deal with that was quite cynical about his abilities and eager to report anything that might denigrate him: his frequent golfing, the gifts he received, and his scrambled syntax in impromptu comments.

Speakes would probably say that Ike was an exception, being a great war hero. To some extent he probably was. Ike's personality and smile were particularly appealing. Virtually everyone would concede, ''I like Ike.''

But what Speakes doesn't seem to realize is that Reagan is doing quite well with the public - despite those negative stories about him. There's a lot of ''I like Reagan'' out there. The message that Reagan is doing a pretty good job is getting through to the public at large.

In the Southeast this reporter found the same public support for Reagan that is reported in the polls. Yes, it has been flagging a bit of late. But his constituents are inclined to say that the President inherited his problems from previous administrations and is doing the best he can to turn things around. Congress is accused of causing most of the problems in the past, and of still standing in the way of Reagan doing what he would like to do about the economy.

Within the white community in the middle- and upper-income brackets - where Reagan gets most of his support - the people like his message. And they scorn the media, particularly the network news programs, that tend to try to punch holes in the Reagan record.

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