WASHINGTON — SEN. George Mitchell (D) of Maine, ever the judicious type, began his comments on the press with praise for its ``competence,'' ``diligence,'' and ``absence of malice or bias.''
But there was a ``but.'' And in his farewell Monitor luncheon with reporters Wednesday, the departing senator and Democratic majority leader did not mince words about the Fourth Estate. He cited a ``fairly high error rate in reporting,'' due largely to the tight time pressures under which reporters operate.
He expressed particular frustration over last year's debate on President Clinton's economic plan, which he called ``disgraceful in the extent of misinformation by the opponents.''
``When people stand up and make manifestly untrue statements, say about the tax consequences, do you have a responsibility when you know it to be false to print the truth in the same report?'' he asked.
``The overwhelming majority of Americans believed incorrectly that their income taxes were going to rise as a result of it. I was struck by the impunity with which opponents could get up and make manifestly false statements.''
The senator also described as ``personally offensive'' the scene of Republican senators calling his health-care reform proposal a government takeover of the health-insurance system, which, he says, it was not. And even still, he added, each member of Congress is covered by a government-organized health-insurance system. Why wasn't the press asking them about this? he asked.
Mitchell does not blame the press for the public's sour mood toward Congress, though he says it's a contributing factor.
In fact, he points out, Congress has never been a beloved institution. He also notes society's rising standards for public servants, a positive trend.
``The criticism I would make is the tendency in recent times to equate newsworthiness with controversy and sensationalism,'' he says. ``If it's sensational and tinged with personal scandal, it gets coverage out of proportion to its real significance or weight.''
The House check-kiting flap is one example, he says, of something that got more coverage than it deserved in proportion to less sensational developments, such as education-reform legislation.
Mitchell says it's not the sour mood that led him to leave politics after 14 years, but rather a longstanding desire not to make a career of the Senate. His fiancee, in fact, had encouraged him to seek reelection, he says.
Mitchell says he does not know what he will do next, though he did express a desire to teach. His name is sometimes mentioned for the commissionership of major league baseball. The Maine Democrat would not even reveal the date of his forthcoming wedding to Heather MacLachlan.
``I'm hoping not to see any of you there,'' he quipped dryly, to roars of laughter.