Pressing a point: journalist defends media fairness

The War Against the Press, by Peter Stoler. New York: Dodd, Mead. 226 pp. $17.95 Peter Stoler is an angry man. Over the last decade he has seen his profession - journalism - tumble from its heady, even sanctified, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate status as watchdog of liberty and guardian of public interest, to the state of seige in which it finds itself today, perceived as a calling fraught with seaminess and an almost absolute absence of scruples.

Stoler is angry at the shoot-the-messenger naivet'e that blames newsmen for the bad news they report. He is angry at the Reagan administration for systematically closing off reporters' access to government personnel and documents. He is angry at the right-wing zealots who promulgate the thesis that the nation's press is a pernicious institution, consciously and actively working to undermine American values and ideals.

It is time for the press to fight back, says Stoler, a senior correspondent for Time. His clarion call is this passionate book, which breaks little new ground but nonetheless stands as an exellent primer on the state of American journalism in the last years of the 1980s.

Like the railroads and the steel industry in times past, the press today is monolithic in nature - large, foreboding, powerful; and the differences between competing organizations are far more difficult to detect than the similarities. Americans by nature don't like such monoliths. Some papers have fanned the flames of this mistrust by egregiously purveying either wholesale or partial fiction: Janet Cooke's invention of the eight-year-old heroin addict, ``Jimmy,'' in the Washington Post; Michael Daly making up names and altering facts in order to convey ``a larger truth'' in his dispatches from Northern Ireland for the New York Daily News.

Stoler is out to prove that Americans' mistrust is misplaced. His heavy artillary in his countercharge against those who assault the press is a 1985 Gallup study conducted for the Times Mirror Corporation, owners of the Los Angeles Times and a dozen other important media properties. The survey found that while the public may have had negative feelings about the press in general - the monolithic institution - when it got down to specific cases, individual news organizations, the reactions were overwhelmingly favorable. Fully 85 percent said that their opinion of radio, local and network television, and local daily newspapers was ``mostly or very favorable.'' That's higher than the military (81 percent), Congress (72 percent), or President Reagan (71 percent). The study's conclusions said simply: ``There is no credibility crisis for the nation's news media. If credibility is defined as believability, then credibility is, in fact, one of the media's strongest suits.''

The study also made clear, however, that those who support the press are not at all likely to shout it from the rooftops while the minority who oppose the press most assuredly are. The press has got to stop listening, says Stoler.

Stoler is not advocating any radicalization of the press, merely an aggressive affirmation of their freedom, lest that freedom be slowly eroded.

The ironic support of his thesis and argument for the press's essential fairness is in the voice they've given to their critics. Most Americans have learned of the critics' positions by reading about them in the American press.

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