Why the press was the loser in this year's presidential debates

As surely as thunder after lightning, the televised campaign debates have sent rumbling through the nation's press a widely echoed question: Who won? The real question should have been: Who lost? The answer to that one is obvious: the press.

The facts, by now, are well known. Before the first debate, the League of Women Voters submitted a list of names of journalists to the Reagan and Mondale staffs for approval as questioners. That procedure, when used in the Ford-Carter debates of 1976 and the Carter-Reagan debates of 1980, produced no vetoes. This year, all 12 names on the initial list were rejected. The league, which sponsors the debates, submitted 100 more. Ninety-seven were vetoed, in about equal numbers by both camps. The two sides could never agree on a fourth questioner: The Oct. 7 Reagan-Mondale debate aired with only three.

That the press is distrusted by the politicians is nothing new. But that the distrust should prove to be so extreme - that 109 of the nation's top journalists should be found unfit by one or the other party - raises troubling questions. Are politicians afraid of tough questions? Or is the press really that bad?

The blame belongs on both sides. For their part, the politicians perhaps thought that by vetoing their sometime critics they could avoid adversarial questions. Perhaps they thought that by rejecting some better-known journalists they could contrive to produce a pool of less-seasoned questioners incapable of pressing them hard on the issues. Or perhaps they simply sought to punish individual journalists or news organizations which they felt were not giving them a fair shake. Whatever the motive - fear, manipulation, or vengeance - it is a sad commentary on both parties. It adds to the widespread suspicion that each party seems bent on programming the public appearances of its candidates, refusing to subject them to tough-minded but respectful questioning.

''Respectful?'' Well, there the wind shifts. While many in the press try extremely hard to be fair-minded, some journalists, sadly enough, believe that reporting should be disrespectful - founded on a distrust of institutions, and confounded by a suspicion of all authority. Some, too, see reporting as a kind of mental dart aimed not at ideas but ad hominem at personalities - as though gossip, not thought, were the fabric of the nation. And some, seeing news on the one hand and a public on the other, look on journalism less as a conduit between the two than as a caldron within which the day's events are brought to a full and rolling boil. For too many, therefore, journalism's purpose becomes less to report on than to participate in the great issues of our day - even to the point of espousing, and fighting for, highly partisan political positions.

Small wonder, then, that the candidates feel they must defend themselves from the press. In fairness to the press, however, the very structure of the debates has put journalists into an untenable position. Because the candidates would apparently rather take questions from anyone but the opposing candidates, journalists have been called in to do the asking. Result: a more-or-less sterile format that resembles less a debate than a set of carefully orchestrated parallel news conferences. In such a format, journalists are forced to be participants rather than reporters. And that, not surprisingly, leads to a serious confusion of those two roles - unfortunately highlighted when, after the Oct. 7 debate, ABC's Barbara Walters walked straight from her privileged position as moderator into an ABC studio and commented on which candidate had done the better job.

Two points, then, and a suggestion for the future. First, reporters need to re-earn the politicians' trust - not by taking sides, but simply by reporting, as scrupulously as possible, what is happening. Second, the public deserves politicians with enough moral courage and intellectual stamina to take, and answer, tough questions. Suggestion: Draw the questioners in the debates from somewhere other than the press - from the academic world, perhaps, or from think tanks - and leave the press free to do its job. And give the moderator authority to moderate - to insist that the candidates address themselves to the questions that have been posed and not duck them. Only then will the debates become something more than glorified news conferences.

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