Kalb to lead exploration into media's impact on public policy

IT'S not just Sam Donaldson hollering a question at Ronald Reagan. Nor Oliver North dodging a waiting attack force of photographers and reporters. No, it's a lot more complicated.

The sometimes murky, frequently contentious way government policy gets squeezed through the US news media involves many exchanges of information between people who often understand little about each other - and consequently circle one another suspiciously.

Few citizens of the Washington-government-media city-state think this situation will ever change or, some say, even should change. But Marvin Kalb, NBC's veteran diplomatic correspondent, thinks it can at least be understood - and maybe nudged in a better direction.

On June 1, Mr. Kalb will become the first head of the new Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he will also occupy a professor's chair.

This may sound like the kind of ivy-covered portal through which the best people disappear only to emerge five years later with a report that everybody applauds and nobody reads. But some fairly astute observers insist that Kalb has a leg up on creating an epicenter of activity and ideas that will have some real impact on the way government and media people understand each other.

From the secretary of defense, to Time magazine's presidential expert Hugh Sidey, to Kalb's longtime sources at Foggy Bottom, one finds an astonishing unanimity about the qualities of mind, spirit, and character he will bring to the task. Caspar Weinberger, for instance, calls the marriage of Kalb with such a mission ``a very promising, very hopeful thing.'' As he recalled in a Monitor telephone interview, Mr. Weinberger took aside the NATO chief, Lord Carrington, at a private function recently and enthusiastically described the work of the center as a ``very important'' stab at ``studying and looking at the very difficult questions involved.''

During an interview at the antenna-studded NBC complex in this city, the tall, trim Kalb talks with a kind of low-key missionary zeal about the center.

``I personally believe the way the press has grown into such a large force in American political life means that we simply must understand it better,'' he says, sitting in the office he has occupied since early 1983 as moderator of ``Meet the Press.'' World leaders use the media ``to get their message across. We have to understand what that process consists of and where it's taking us, and whether it can be better used for the common good of society.''

The new center, launched with a $5 million endowment by the father of Joan Shorenstein Barone - a CBS producer who died at the age of 38 - and another several million from other sources, has no agenda so far; but the working propositions, as summarized by members of the search committee, and other observers, stack up as follows:

(1) The American media have become an extremely powerful force in governance. (2) Policymakers spend a great deal of time figuring how their policies will fare with the press; and the press spends at least an equivalent amount of time attempting to scope out the motives behind those policies. (3) Neither side really understands the way the other works. (4) If they don't understand the process, the rest of the country certainly won't.

``If we can better understand the impact media has on public policy and governance,'' observes Albert Hunt, Wall Street Journal Washington bureau chief, who served on the search committee to find the first director, ``it may produce a more thoughtful government and a more thoughtful press.''

All of this may sound sweeping; but, without question, observers in both camps say, it is desperately needed.

Mr. Sidey, for instance, complains about a pervasive cynicism among journalists, charging that many of his fellow reporters ``lack sympathy for people who try to run government'' and that ``one or more'' of the network news anchors have come to ``think that they are the President'' and to ``force a viewpoint on the country. They seem determined to make policy. And that's wrong.'' This kind of arrogance, he adds, is ``why the country resents us so.''

Weinberger points out that a strong strain of resentment over the press's role in covering the Vietnam war still percolates throughout the Defense Department. The feeling that the press was at times ``anti-American'' (a feeling he does not necessarily share, he says) ``left a lot of unhappiness here.''

``There's a perception on the part of policymakers,'' counters Ted Koppel, host of ABC's ``Nightline,'' ``that the press is one of the things they just have to put up with.... They hold the institution of journalism in low regard.''

Nothing in the charter of the Barone Center suggests that Kalb should act the part of mediator between policymaker and media star; but his character seems suited to the role.

Now he wants to look at both the people and the process, he says, ``through a longer, broader lens.''

On one side of the media/policymaker fence, for instance he wonders about how preoccupied the machinery of government is with churning out material for the media - citing the last presidential press conference as an example. ``The President prepared, I am told, far longer and with more sustained energy than he prepared for the summit at Reykjav'ik ... because his presidency could have gone down the tube.'' On the other hand, he complains that the media treated the press conference ``as another match-up between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers: `How will the press do and how will the President do?'''

Kalb would like to send graduate students to Washington to examine the way in which the White House prepared and to similarly study the kind of preparations and questions the media engaged in - thus to understand a little better the ill-defined border between the makers of policy and those who interpret it.

``There's no way you can look into the process and say, `here I'm going to take the press out,''' he says. ``Democracy cannot be sustained in this country without a healthy relationship between the press and politicians. We simply have to understand each other a lot better than we do right now.

``We will rise together, or we will sink together.''

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