When the government handles the news
Martial law descends on Poland. Sadat is assassinated. Though intensely concerned with both these sudden crises, the US government was not, of course, directly or casually involved; it was only a bystander. Yet when big news like this breaks on the world stage, the US government is a potential source of information that reporters everywhere like to check early and often. Press and government thereby enter a tricky, if familiar, dialogue. It affects what the US public can know and understand about a distant, momentous event, and the national interest as well.
It is past time for this particular press-government interaction to be better understood. Its potential hazards need to be kept in mind at a time when Poland is skirting General Jaruzelski's ''abyss'' and other world tensions continue to brew uncertainly.
A faraway traumatic event may leave its institutional and human victims shocked, confused, speechless, injured, or dead. Other parties in the area may have only fragments of the overall picture, lack the resources to know more, or prefer discretion. Reporters on the scene, to say nothing of their colleagues elsewhere, do need assistance to cover the story. Because the US government can gather and interpret information perhaps more quickly than any other, it is often in a position to help even though it isn't involved.
So when news of the assault on that Cairo presidential reviewing stand first hit, officials in Washington were swamped with press queries. With earlier memories of the false confirmation of White House Press Secretary Brady's death still obviously fresh, they were plainly cautious; so was the press. The public had to wait a while for reliable information. The confusion of that initial period was only occasionally compounded by flat assertions about Sadat alive or dead - slips which were probably only human given the tremendous pressure on everyone in a matter of huge importance to the US.
But pressure at these times has its limits, for government spokesmen and journalists alike. And in the dialogue between them are restraints - such as that suggested by the Brady episode - governing what each can do.
For a government uninvolved in an event but besieged nevertheless with pleas for information and comment, its own objectives - clarity, good policy, dignity - also matter greatly. In the first frantic hours when no knowledge is certain, no source unimpeachable, officials trying to respond meaningfully must be careful. They might, for instance, have to navigate the thin, dangerous line between speaking simple truth (''Yes, we do have reports from our Embassy that . . . '') and being induced to go further, into interpretation (''Yes, it would appear that . . . ''). Acknowledging truth is one thing, if it is clearly labeled as fact reported, not officially stated. Speculating about its consequences is quite another.
Nor should any government ever be in a position of prematurely stating final outcomes - success or failure, life or death - in someone else's country. Our ambassador in Cairo put it precisely in the wake of Sadat's death. ''It was not the job of the US Embassy,'' he said, ''to confirm whether the President was killed or not'' until the Egyptians themselves had made it official.
For a competent, alert government public affairs operation, assisting the press in such stories is fundamental. But doing it well means getting it right. People in government assigned and able to be informative need time to collect and review what they can provide. Their judgments must be case by case, not automatic. Considerations of future policy, diplomacy, tact - all must be part of the mix.
Inexperienced or incautious officials working with the press can make difficult matters immensely worse. Badly handled (and badly reported) developments can influence events in the troubled country, anger the parties involved, or cause the US to be suspected or accused of playing a role. At home, misinformed public perception of events elsewhere can skew policymaking. Any and all of it causes US relationships and the US image to suffer.
At its end of the dialogue, most (but not all) of the press recognizes these necessities. In covering the story, most news people work hard to preserve the slight but vital distinctions between what is fact and what is reported as apparent fact, for who is doing the reporting and how, and for what sourcing is proper. And, under the crush of deadlines and competition, most editors and reporters have learned how to avoid the ambush not only of error but of rumor, irrelevance, and trivia - from whatever source.
The responsibility of everyone who reads a newspaper and, above all, watches television at such moments is to understand these difficulties which confront journalists and governments working on stories like that now unfolding in Poland. The public needs to be patient, to wait for information that is plainly reliable because serious people with time to check it out are reporting it from informed, authoritative, and identified sources.
The need to know, in other words, must go hand in hand with the need to stay cool. Public composure in the face of dramatic events helps the press to do its best job, and governments in turn to perform most efficiently and effectively. We haven't reached this desirable state of affairs, but we're getting there. It's the only place to be.