Grenada invasion renews debate over presidents and the press
Washington — The battle with the Cubans in Grenada appears to be winding down. But the White House battle with the press is still simmering. Following a barrage of criticism from news organizations for not letting reporters onuo lhe Caribbean island until two days after the United States invasion, the White House and the Pentagon have now eased restrictions on press coverage. But the crisis raises anew the issue of press management and the extent to which the President - or any president - manipulates the press for his own policy objectives.
Arguments are mustered on both sides.
''The problem is that the press is shut off from information the public needs to know,'' a Colorado newspaperwoman comments. ''The government uses the press shamefully.''
''We had the problem of protecting security,'' says a White house official, explaining why reporters were not allowed in on Grenada with the first wave of US troops. But, he adds, ''we could have handled the matter better.''
It is not lost on journalists that the public does not necessarily sympathize with their trials. In the case of Grenada, despite concern in Congress and elsewhere that the administration is not providing all the facts surrounding the invasion, there seems to be considerable approval of the decision to bar reporters in the early hours on grounds that secrecy helped ensure success of the mission and thereby safeguarded American lives.
Beyond the immediate question of press censorship, however, lies the larger issue of the role of the press in the American political system in the wake of an erosion of institutions generally. This role is seen by experts to be vastly enhanced.
''The media now have a heightened impact on the presidency,'' says Martha J. Kumar of Towson State University, a specialist on the subject. ''Today there is a lack of institutional discipline in Congress, especially with rise of the subcommittee system. The President and Congress can't get together and talk things out as they once used to. So the President has to go to the public and develop a coalition of support. The press is therefore important to him as an intermediary institution.''
The same is true in the case of Congress, says Dr. Kumar. ''It used to be that announcements were made after deals were already struck. Now the mark-up systems (in congressional committees) are public, the state of play is known, and so the press and interest groups come into the picture earlier.''
Mindful of the heightened importance of the news media, President Reagan has skillfully used them. He is given exceptionally high ratings as a communicator and as a leader who understands the advantage of getting his message out on his own terms. Hence his preference for speeches over formal news conferences in putting over his domestic and foreign policies.
''The Reagan staff knows his strength, and one thing they have sought to do is to present the President without a lot of commentary and analysis on TV,'' says Dr. Kumar. ''During the Nixon period you had instant analyses after news conferences and so the 'good' of the speech was often destroyed. The Reagan administration wants the President to come across unfiltered, and the evening news conferences make this possible. TV networks don't want to spend a lot of time on commentary in that prime time.
''The Reagan people also know that with the news conference scheduled after the evening news, it is unlikely that the next day the news conference will be the first story.''
Although the press conference is not Mr. Reagan's best vehicle for projecting leadership - he has held only 20 news conferences since coming to office - it is a carefully orchestrated performance, and he has grown more adept at it. He is more relaxed and self-assured. He bones up and rehearses for the event. He knows where reporters are sitting and whom he will call on. He affably uses the reporter's first name, creating an atmoshere of easy familiarity. In contrast to the hurly-burly of conferences in previous presidencies, when some reporters screamed their way to a question, Reagan has shaped the news conference into a model of courtesy and decorum.
For their part, reporters prepare carefully but are under considerable tension. Print journalists, especially, who have little experience in the TV limelight, sit self-consciously in their assigned seats. If millions of unseen viewers are not enough to arouse blips in the heart, there is the editor back home, carefully judging his or her reporter's performance - and the newspaper's exposure.
For most there is also the frustration of knowing how little chance he or she has of being picked for a question. Some 150 accredited White House journalists may attend the conference. Fewer than 20 may actually be invited to stand on their feet.
''Life was easier in the days of FDR,'' remarks Steve McCormick of the National News Service. ''We didn't have such pressures then. (Now) most of the questions go to the wire services, the TV networks, and the big newspapers, so very few get a crack at the President.''
Old reportorial hands recall the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman as a time when, in an informal get-together in the Oval Office, they really got to know the President. Most important, they gained a feel for his thinking and his policies that was helpful in reporting on the presidency fairly and accurately.
Is the modern-day format adequate to the high civic purpose of holding a president accountable to the people? Political scientists note that in democracies with a parliamentary system, the prime minister regularly answers questions before parliament. He or she is criticized by the opposition and responds. The American president, on the other hand, goes to Congress only to make a speech. He does not testify before committees. Any move to reform the system would be regarded as a violation of the constitutional separation of powers.
Yet, though today's televised news conference is more of a show than a serious probing of the nation's chief executive, it is accepted as the only alternative in this day of mass communication.
''It's a terrible way for a president to be held accountable but it's better than anything else,'' comments political analyst Austin Ranney of the American Enterprise Institute. ''This is the only device for asking the president what he is doing and why he is doing it. But TV is bound to dominate. You won't get maximum information to the people, and the White House of course has an interest in making the president look good.''
Part of the problem with the TV format, says Dr. Ranney, is that no one reporter can hold the floor and keep pushing the president on a subject of national importance and urgency. Therefore this makes for short, snappy answers - geared to the snippets that the networks will run on their programs.
''The White House knows the public will see the snippets, and so there's a premium on answering pithily - with memorable quotes,'' says Ranney. ''Live television at least is better because the people who do watch can see what the president does answer as against the snippets later broadcast.''
For all its faults, the presidential news conference is deemed a valuable exercise, even by journalists.
''People can at least see how the president answers and decide if the answers are acceptable,'' says UPI reporter Helen Thomas. ''Then they have more choices.''
''You get a sense of the person of the president,'' says Dr. Kumar. ''You find out what he's interested in, whether he likes details or not, what his view of the office is. You get a measure of him.''
Experts note also that Republicans tend to be more management-oriented in handling of press relations. They tend to pick spokesmen not close to the president who are simply there to send the message out. In the case of White House deputy press secretary Larry Speakes, this creates concerns among reporters who are not confident he always knows what is going on.
''Speakes does not know the President's mind,'' says Dr. Kumar. ''Jody Powell knew Carter's mind and the press could be confident that his answers reflected the president.''
Journalists are critical of the way the White House has ''manipulated'' the news about Grenada, first lying about the invasion and then keeping reporters from the scene. In general they view their role as one of informing the public within the framework of the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of the press. They feel it is an integral part of the democratic system.