The Scales of Justice

THE scales of justice don't always balance. Example: Imagine the result if, in one scale, you put every news story bemoaning the ``sleaze'' in the Reagan administration, and in the other you put every story acknowledging that some of those accused of wrongdoing were cleared of the allegations against them. We're not excusing the all-too-common ethical lapses by former Reaganites, and we're all for efforts to tighten ethical standards in Washington, whether in the White House, Congress, or the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But in the media's (and, vicariously, the public's) chase after every hint of scandal, they often forget to round off earlier stories, to adjust and correct assessments.

Last week an appellate court overturned the conviction of Lyn Nofziger, a one-time Reagan political adviser, for illegally lobbying former White House colleagues. The decision was duly reported by the press for a day or two, then the story disappeared. (Many of the stories emphasized that Mr. Nofziger was cleared on a ``technicality'' - as if ``technicalities'' aren't the heart and soul of due process.)

That brief coverage can never offset the nearly daily front-page and top-of-the-broadcast stories that issued forth while an independent counsel investigated and prosecuted Mr. Nofziger. Not to mention the $1.5 million in legal bills Nofziger ran up, nor the stain on his reputation that he'll be a long time in rubbing away.

Remember the investigations by ``special prosecutors'' of Carter chief of staff Hamilton Jordon (cocaine possession), former Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan (racketeering), former Attorney General Edwin Meese (financial irregularities), and former Justice Department official Theodore Olson (lying to Congress)? In each case, the allegations were found to be insufficient to warrant prosecution. Each man is free, but with finances and reputations in various states of disrepair.

Perhaps there's no great lesson here about how the legal system or the press does its job. The system works tolerably well, as the outcome in these cases attests.

Still, the Nofziger case is a reminder that the system needs to be slow to suck people into its grinding maw, and that the press - and, indeed, all of us - has to be quick to square accounts with those whom the system has bruised.

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