The Messenger Gets Scolded

But even if readers like Clinton, he still owes us answers

It's time once again to give my critics an opportunity to express their views: Here, from a woman in Ann Arbor, Mich., is a particularly articulate example of what I have been hearing from readers of late:

"The press, to my belief, has run amok and seems to care little about world affairs and serious things that affect all of us and our well being. Gossip and sleaze seem to be their main concern. Just watch the press conferences and the president and learn a lesson of disgust with them. And sadly, the press doesn't seem to get the message. For they are the problem, I believe."

Then in response to a column of mine headlined "Scandal Diverts the President" comes this letter from a couple in North Vassalboro, Maine: "It seems clear to us that it is the press that is doing the diverting. The reporters who asked President Clinton so many repetitive and one-track questions do not represent the two of us, we can assure you. We respectfully suggest that you have been lax in failing to fault the press for the circus atmosphere and failing to appreciate that the president every day shows courage in facing this unconscionable and politicized 'investigation.' We urge you to try to restore your reputation for evenhandedness."

And what do I say? Do I fly quickly to the defense of the media and say that the president is the problem - that he's the message, and the press is only the messenger? Yes, that's still my basic feeling.

It is the president's unexplained actions - where he doggedly sticks to a foot-dragging approach instead of cooperating with investigators in a number of probes of his conduct over the years - that has stirred up the suspicions and the questions of the press.

It's clear from my letters that a lot of people think very highly of Mr. Clinton. Typical of this view are the following words in a letter from a man in Wilton, Conn.: "Never have we had a president of such intellect, knowledge, and grasp of both problems and solutions on the international and national scene capable of articulating in full sentences without cue cards supplied by a staff. Now you want to bring him down?"

I agree that Bill Clinton is a brilliant fellow. He's an exceptionally hard-working president and possesses a particularly warm personality. And maybe he yet will persuade historians who rated him at the end of his first term that he is better than an "average" president. I'd just like for him to fully explain happenings in the Oval Office which have raised suspicions that he obstructed justice.

Then there was a letter from a man in Sarasota, Fl., who, unhappy with the lengthy Lewinsky-related questioning of the president by reporters, writes that the "office of the president deserves the respect it used to have."

I find myself in partial agreement with this gentleman. I must say that it seems to me that the press is overdoing it when it pecks away and pecks away at the president at these press conferences. It's almost as if the reporters are grabbing Clinton by the lapel and shouting in his face, "Own up that you did it."

Again, I say that some questioning on the subject is legitimate, brought about by suspicions the president refuses to explain away.

But to hammer away at the president on the subject, with questions and follow-ups numbering about 30 and with little respect in the voices of those asking the questions? Well, that's overdoing it, and it certainly gives the appearance of disrespect.

Where is the line to be drawn between legitimate questioning and questioning that has become disrespectful?

My guess is that reporters, rightly or wrongly, aren't going to let up on their questioning of what they see as a stonewalling president.

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