New program will examine media impact on public policy

Plans to produce a neutron bomb proceeded quietly and smoothly through the early months of 1977, until another kind of bomb exploded in the columns of the Washington Post, knocking those plans off track. Walter Pincus of the Washington Post wrote a story that enlarged on an obscure bureaucratic reference to an ``enhanced radiation'' warhead. Wire services, TV, and radio picked up the story, and soon the whole country knew these weapons were designed ``to kill people while leaving buildings intact.''

Backed into a corner by a sudden flood of controversy, former President Jimmy Carter eventually decided to scrap production and deployment of the neutron bomb.

Thus the history of the arms race took a minor swerve. But just as important, perhaps, the episode provided a sharp illustration of the power of the press to change a public official's agenda. That's why Martin Linsky, a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, is interested in it. The neutron bomb account is one of many case studies Mr. Linsky will shape into a book on how the press affects federal policymaking.

His project is helping to launch the Kennedy School's new Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy. This newest addition to one of the country's top political science institutions will try to fill a scholarly gap.

``It strikes me that what we have done in recent years is a good job of chronicling and analyzing the impact the press has on political campaigns,'' explains Albert Hunt, Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal and one of many journalists involved in plans for the new center. ``What we haven't done a good job on is analyzing the impact the press has on policy.''

That kind of analysis is crucial to places like the Kennedy School, where people are trained for public service, says Jonathan Moore, head of the school's Institute of Politics. ``We must comprehend the role of the media and the press with regard to our institutions of government,'' he says, leaning forward in an easy chair in his office to emphasize his point.

Dr. Moore, who worked in five federal agencies and on Capitol Hill during his stint in Washington, recalls relations with the press as ``one of the more demanding parts of my jobs.'' The interaction between journalists and public officials will go on whether or not researchers analyze it, he observes. But the controversy currently ``raging'' over the press's role in influencing the political process makes such analysis particularly timely, he says.

The body of research the new center will foster should ``contribute to a more enlightened debate,'' in Dr. Moore's view.

He looks forward to seeing some of that debate take place right within the walls of the Kennedy School. A major part of the center's work will be to bring together various ``sets of actors'' -- politicians, reporters, bureaucrats, editors. Part of the effort will be to help members of the press grasp the complexities of government, and vice versa, Dr. Moore points out. The center's program, which should be fully under way in six months, will be ``mutually nurturing'' for both journalists and public officials, he says.

Does this mean the goal is to foster more cooperation between press and policymakers, and thus break down the traditional ``adversarial relationship'' between them?

``We start with the conviction that the adversarial relationship is a very important thing -- we don't want to fool with it,'' says Dr. Moore. The idea, he says, is to create a better base of understanding all around.

Hale Champion, executive dean of the Kennedy School and a man of long experience in government and in the press, answers that question somewhat differently. ``When there is an adversarial climate,'' he says, ``it's because they don't understand what each other does.'' Too often, he continues, people in government tend to think the press has a responsibility to make life easier for them, while the members of the press sometimes expect public officials to help them meet their responsibilities. Sorting out that misunderstanding could be one contribution of the new center, he says.

Mr. Hunt, representing the working press, views the relationship between reporters and officials as ``symbiotic'' as much as ``adversarial.'' When policymakers want to get information out, he says, it's ``a clear mutuality of interests.'' But a healthy dose of skepticism, on both sides, is very important, he adds.

In his research, Mr. Linsky has noted that the public manager who is ``willing to risk robust engagement with the press will ultimately serve both his programs and the public interest.'' That ``robust engagement'' is, in a nutshell, what the Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy will strive to promote.

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