The press isn't soft on Reagan

A British reporter now has added his voice to complaints often heard among those who are unhappy with Ronald Reagan: that the press is pretty much giving the President a free ride. The thesis varies little: that reporters beguiled by the personable Mr. Reagan simply aren't giving him the tough, critical coverage he deserves - and that the public is the loser thereby.

One highly respected Washington bureau chief who keeps a close eye on the President and who in no way could be regarded as ''beguiled'' by Mr. Reagan says that in no way is the President being handled softly by the media. He calls this view ''nonsense'' and adds:

''The press has done a good job of letting the American people know where Reagan stands on the issues. And from that they can make up their minds on whether they think he is competent or incompetent. If you want to talk about the American press being soft in covering a President, go back to Kennedy. Kennedy had a lot of the press in his pocket.''

Peter Pringle, Washington correspondent for the London Observer, says he thinks the President keeps the US press at bay ''with a mere dip of the head, a shy smile, and a sense of timing honed by an earlier career in an only slightly different medium.''

Reagan's quips and unvarying good humor do tend to disarm his critics, in and out of the media. Thus, the White House press doesn't buzz around him like angry hornets as they did in the days of Watergate and to a lesser degree during the Ford and Carter admini-strations.

But I think this President is being asked all the right questions. Remember the recent press conference when Reagan was beseiged with questions about the Carter debate-preparation documents that had somehow gotten into the Reagan 1980 campaign camp? And remember how at the last press conference Reagan had to answer in detail about his plans for possible involvement in Central America? True, Reagan's critics thought the President was quite unresponsive. But that has nothing to do with how the press played its role in dealing with these exceedingly important questions.

What is happening is this: A lot of people who are passionately opposed to Mr. Reagan and everything he stands for simply are frustrated these days by the President's continuing ability to, as they see it, ''get away with'' so much, providing jokes instead of answering their questions.

Actually, it seems some of them - certainly Reagan's harshest critics - would settle for nothing less than for the President's saying, when questioned, ''Yes, I am flirting with a nuclear war in my belligerency in dealing with the Soviets''; ''Yes, I am moving the US toward possible military involvement in Central America,'' and ''Yes, I knew all about those documents we got from Carter and, in point of fact, I led the conspiracy to get them.'' That seems to be the kind of response that some of Reagan's severest critics might find acceptable.

And when the President doesn't ''own up'' and reveal what his critics would call weaknesses, these same critics tend to take it out on the press. They call the conference ''bland'' and ''uneventful'' and they say the reporters just aren't banging the President over the head hard enough.

Doubtless, too, the President sometimes is evasive. Sometimes national security might dictate this. And one can guess that this President - like presidents before him - at times is less than forthcoming because of political and self-serving reasons.

Anyway, the President really has a lot of people ''out there,'' most of them who never voted for him in the first place, who are, as they complain, ''climbing up the wall'' because the press isn't grilling Mr. Reagan in a way that will, as they see it, publicly reveal the President's basic incapacity to govern.

And nothing infuriates the dyed-in-the-wool critic of Mr. Reagan more than his soft answer and particularly his quips - in response to tough questions - tough questions that are then perceived by these same critics as being soft simply because they didn't evoke the answers that were wanted.

All this, again, is not to say this President is fully responsive. That's not the point. In fact, he doubtless is getting away with a good deal of imprecision and unresponsiveness by way of his quick feet and ready wit.

But I think the media people who closely cover this President are, for the most part, less than enchanted with his ideas and his stewardship. And while they may not be holding the President's feet to the fire, most White House reporters are diligently telling the American people all they need to know about the Reagan presidency. Enough for these people to vote for him. Or against him.

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