At last! A better press conference

Give President Reagan and his people credit for trying to come up with a better press conference format. The latest experiment is to have a half dozen reporters (a different group each time) meet with Mr. Reagan in his Oval Office where, away from TV cameras, the questioning goes on for about 30 minutes. The first event of this kind came off quite well. The questions for the most part were probing. And a lot of ground was covered.

It's not yet like the sessions held by FDR. One who was there at the twice-weekly Roosevelt press conferences, our colleague, Richard L. Strout, applauds the latest Reagan concept, saying it's getting close to the Roosevelt format.

Strout says that what made the Roosevelt approach so effective was the opportunity for several follow-up questions. Reporters seeking answers from Reagan the other day explored subjects quite thoroughly with follow-up queries.

True, this back-and-forth with Reagan was piped in to the White House press room where other reporters could listen in. But there was no evidence that the questioners were inhibited by this. Nor were they showboating. Away from the TV, a reporter will act pretty much like a reporter.

Perhaps, in this more relaxed, less public context, reporters ask the question that they themselves want answered: Not the question that is meant to put a president on the spot.

The president doesn't have to have press conferences. There's nothing in the Constitution that mandates such sessions. Obviously for our democratic processes to work the public has a need to know what the president is doing. And the president needs to communicate with the public in order to gain the kind of support he must have if he is to get his own job done. So the press conference emerged as the natural device to meet these mutual needs.

Strout points out that before the intrusion of television the press conferences were quite informal, often enhanced by good-humored bantering from the president. This, he says, was particularly true at get-togethers with Roosevelt when FDR loved to jokingly spar with the approximately 30 to 40 reporters who crowded around him in his Oval Office.

Now, with the vast expansion of the press corps and the advent of TV, the press conferences have spilled out in a most ungainly fashion into the living rooms of America.

No longer are they relatively friendly exchanges. Now it's show business. And before the TV cameras a president brings, for the most part, little prepared messages that he recites: not so much answers but small position papers that he provides not for the reporters in front of him but for the millions of Americans ''out there.''

At the same time the media, given this TV exposure on the national stage, has tended to become an adversary of the president, apparently believing those writers on the presidency who assert the press has a responsibility to hold the president accountable. Thus the press has, indeed, come to take itself much too seriously.

But the new off-TV camera context may be a way out. It certainly looks like a way back, too, to the days of FDR.

There could be improvements, however. For example, why limit the group of reporters to six? Why not enlarge it to 10 or 12? Then let there be a truly open press conference where the reporters can bid, as they did in the past, for the floor.

Forget the orderly raising of hands which President Reagan requires - and rightly, too - at the big TV spectaculars that have been given the name of ''regular press conference.'' Let the reporters call out, ''Mr. President.'' And let him recognize whomever he wants.

That is, why not return to the oldtime open marketplace at these smaller press sessions? The present system of making certain that every reporter present has an opportunity to ask a question or questions turns the session too much into a lot of little interviews.

Why not let a dozen or so reporters have at the president, as in days of yore - and let the chips fall where they may? Chances are that we'll have some excitement - but without all that conflict and acting that sours so many of the sessions held these days under TV lights.

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