Press Should Be Tough, but Fair, With Public Officials

ADM. Bobby Ray Inman's withdrawal as secretary of defense-designate is only one of the more recent cases where the question of media treatment of public officials has come up. His complaint that he had been roughed up by the media seems to have set off some self-examination in press circles.

The discussion is timely and healthy. The press must be vigilant; it must probe hard and keep public officials accountable. But public service shouldn't be a demeaning experience. Too many outstanding Americans are refusing government appointments simply because they don't want to risk unfair and unfounded bashing by the press.

Mr. Inman wasn't a good example of the press overstepping its proper role. A few columnists may have gone too far, but the media had largely favored his nomination to head the Department of Defense.

The charge of an overzealous press has touched my life of late. Ever since political adviser Ed Rollins talked at a Monitor breakfast about suppressing the black vote, setting off a firestorm in the political world, our press forum has received a lot of attention. One prominent writer asserted that a lesson that ``could benefit young Washington political operatives'' was to never go into a Monitor breakfast without being ``nervous.'' She said that Mr. Rollins's problem was that he was ``calm.''

No public official needs to feel nervous about coming into a media breakfast where, as I see it, civility prevails. Such an occasion calls for professionalism - not show business skills. Questioners do not raise their voices or make accusations. Indeed, in more than 2,600 of these sessions over 28 years I've never seen officials undergo anything except good, probing but civil questioning.

If a public official is nervous in such a situation, he may well have something to hide. But Rollins was not a victim of the press at our breakfast. His folly was of his own making. An audio tape of that breakfast clearly shows that Rollins volunteered the information that caused him so much trouble.

Press excesses are difficult to single out, particularly since the courts have ruled that it is nearly impossible for reporters to libel a public official. But officials responsible for recruiting people to run for office say their task is becoming more difficult each year because of reluctance on the part of those who think the media are not going to treat them fairly.

I recall one blatant case of unfair press treatment of George Romney, then the leading contender for the 1968 GOP presidential nomination. Fresh from the Vietnam War theater, Mr. Romney complained to our breakfast group that in Vietnam he had been ``brainwashed'' by United States officials, in that they had tried to mislead him.

There was no indication then or afterward that reporters in attendance took this disclosure as other than the words of a public official who was being critical of the kind of information he had received.

Shortly thereafter Romney was interviewed about his trip and again spoke of being ``brainwashed.'' This time the word was picked up in the national media, given big play, and interpreted in the articles containing it as an admission of Romney's gullibility.

He never recovered politically from this blow. His campaign to become president - off to such a strong start - was at an end.

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