The press on trial

THIS past weekend, I fulfilled a longstanding promise to meet with graduates from a small Massachusetts college. Out of school a couple of years, they wanted to chat about politics, government, the press, foreign policy. Some were in business for themselves, others in the professions. They were bound by no common ideology, no religion, no social background.

What did unite them was a scathing contempt for the press. They slashed away at what they saw as often sensationalist coverage, particularly by television, of such stories as hostage-taking and airliner-hijackings. They were bitterly critical of what they considered excessive coverage of the Iran-contra affair.

There was something of a contradiction on this latter point, for they were also unanimously scathing about the Reagan administration's handling of the overture to Iran, and the diversion of arms profits to the Nicaraguan contras. But the administration's wrongdoing did not, in their eyes, exempt the press from what they considered overkill coverage.

What intrigued me was that these were not necessarily conservatives, not necessarily Reagan supporters, and certainly not critics whose minds had been made up over long years about the press.

In recent months I have listened to similar outbursts from classes of talented Foreign Service officers, and groups of handpicked military officers doing their War College stint.

Perhaps the military men lean to the conservative side. But the Foreign Service officers are drawn from all quarters of the political spectrum.

What it seems to add up to is that those press diehards who say their profession is not in trouble with the public are just not reading the signs correctly. A lot of the polling indicates there is a press credibility problem. But some editors are discounting this data and urging that those in charge of our news organizations should simply tough it out.

I think they are wrong. I think the press needs to listen to its readers, its viewers, its listeners. This does not mean that editors should do everything the consumers of their news package tell them to. But if editors, with disdain and arrogance, ignore what they are hearing, then the press will be in deeper trouble than it already is.

It was Vermont Royster, that wise sage of the Wall Street Journal, who said the danger is not so much that governments or the courts will succeed in silencing the press, as that the people themselves, in a moment of high emotion, will abandon their devotion to freedom of thought, of speech, of the press.

And so we come to another challenge for the press - the coverage of the public hearings in a Senate caucus room in Washington on the Iran-contra affair.

It is right that these public hearings should be held. It is part of the strength of the American system. We already know that the administration is guilty of ineptness and bumbling. What the hearings will properly reveal is whether there was a criminal conspiracy, and if so, who was involved in it.

The challenge for the press lies not in the act of covering all this, but in the way it covers it.

There will be titillating revelations. There will also be hours of boredom. Will the trivia get the same treatment as the real substance? What price editorial perspective, responsibility, judgment? Millions of dollars are being spent on the coverage. Thousands of hours are being put in by top, talented reporters. Can editors be disciplined enough not to waste dollars, and call those reporters off when the story does not justify space? Or will the knowledge of the investment being made, and the enormous competitive pressures of journalism today, nudge them in the direction of constant coverage of what is not constantly newsworthy?

As the months of testimony drone on, the Washington hearings will provide an interesting trial of the press, as well as of some of the more notorious characters due to testify.

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