Flaws in the presidency -- and in the press

A recent NBC-TV "White Paper" on the presidency left the audience with the message that probably nothing really could be done to make the presidential job more effective.

For our little party of viewers watching this informative program for nearly 90 minutes the message was a letdown.

Also, while the program portrayed in detail what presidents now do -- and did in the past -- there was one segment, dealing with the chief executive's relationship with the media, which was flawed by lack of balance.

We were told, through interviews with three important members of the press, that the presidents were continually managing the news. And John Ehrlichman, in one interview, said this was very true, citing examples of how President Nixon went about seeking media play for certain stories he wanted given special attention.

We were also told how presidents and those around them are not sufficiently accessible to the media.

The program's message was clear: Presidents have an "edge" over the press, and they use it.

Now all this is true. But what was left out were comments from equally respected members of the Washington press which would have pointed up some failings, too, on the part of those who have covered presidents.

Such White House correspondents would have said that in this post-Watergate period a considerable amount of adversary journalism is being practiced by reporters, most noticeably by a few of those who attend White House daily briefing sessions.

Recently, the loud, accusatory, sometimes angry voices of this handful of reporters have quieted a bit. This has been one positive result of the crises in Iran and Afghanistan. Somehow even these reporters seem to have decided that this is no time to try to push Jody Powell toward some indiscreet answer that could endanger the hostages or bring the US closer to war.

But it is predictable that once the crises ebb a bit the post-Watergate pall will reemerge in the press room. The angry, sarcastic voices will be heard again.

And these reporters will be joined by a number of others who, while quieter in their approach, ask endless, repetitive questions which appear to be saying: "Confess, Jody. Own up that you are holding out on us -- that you are covering up something we should know."

A presidency flawed in its relations with the press was brought out quite clearly in the TV "White Paper." But the case would have been made more persuasively if some correspondent had been quoted as saying -- and there are a number who would have been willing to say this -- that White House reporters would never produce a Watergate story or win a Pulitzer prize simply by beating Powell over the head and berating him for not telling more.

Also, some reporter could have said that pre-Watergate briefings were often more productive simply because press secretaries (like other human beings) are likely to be more forthcoming with information when asked something in a civil, questioning way than when they are being rudely cross- examined.

There was a basic assumption in the handling of this TV segment on the president and the press which, admittedly, is held by some journalists: that governments, and particularly presidents, are overly secretive, overly protective of information that might be damaging to themselves. And that the press, to overcome this presidential (and government) edge, is justified in doing almost anything to get the information it feels the public needs to know to make the decisions it must make in a democracy.

This reporter tends to subscribe to the view that the First Amendment does give the press the right to go to great lengths in digging out stories and in publishing what it finds. To us, the Founding Fathers -- while not providing an absolute right to the press's freedom -- anticipated that a free press might well commit some excesses but believed that an unbridled press was necessary to help the public keep an eye on its government and its leaders.

But we don't think the Founding Fathers expected those in the press to be "enemies" of government. The press should be a watchdog of government and government officials -- and, particularly, the president. But reporters don't have to bite or be nasty. Further, they will get the job done better -- and evoke more responsiveness from office holders -- by asking intelligent questions not docilely or demeaningly but civilly.

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