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Grenada invasion renews debate over presidents and the press

By Charlotte SaikowskiStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 1, 1983


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.

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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.