At the White House press briefing on Feb. 2, a reporter inquired about a new study titled "The Imperial Media." The study, written by a college professor, advised President Reagan to intentionally cool down relations with journalists -- specifically, to "tame White House reporters," discourage personal mingling with journalists," keep his press officers "in the dark," and in general to "manage media relations" as much as possible.
What about this study, the reporter wanted to know.
Deputy White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes answered that he hadn't seen anything there we plan to implement right away."
". . . Right away?" several reporters shot back in unison.
". . . that we plan to implement," Speakes said, clarifying.
"That's precisely the way they should have handled it," said Robert M. Entman, the 31-year-old assistant professor at Duke University who wrote the study that sparked the question that won the clarified denial. "I would advise the White House to distance itself from me, now that I've become controversial."
At the moment, Entman may be overstating his controversiality. But the "Today" show has booked him for March 12, to argue his case with Tom Brokaw and another journalist. And there's no doubt that his 25-page monograph, which appears as one chapter of a book called "Politics and the Oval Office," is high-emotion stuff among so-called media imperialists.
The volume was commissioned by the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a think tank which Edwin Meese III, Reagan's old friend and counselor, helped found back in 1972.
What Entman is advocating is that the president intentionally cover up the most dramatic, juiciest, gossipiest, name-callingest, trials-by-press stories available through the executive branch.
The media "can and do obstruct the president," Entman writes. The ways they do it include "confusing the president's responsiveness to their demands with sensitivity to the public interest; inhibiting private negotiation between the president and other national leaders, particularly those in Congress; complicating executive management by magnifying conflict within the cabinet, and imposing conflicting standards of behavior which mean that, whatever he does, he cannot escape unfavorable judgement."
Entman, a registered Democrat, says he wrote his "memo to the president" before he knew who would be elected. His point of view is that of an academic, not a politician.
But he does have a point of view on the "imperial media": It is that they are misinforming the public outright in many cases, and even more frequently "misdirecting attention toward gossip, style and dramatics such as 'lust in the heart' and away from substantial issues such as the effects of public policy on peoples' lives, as in the Chrsyler Corporation or the deregulation of crude."
Entman says the president need not play the game by the rules of the press. Instead, he should play by his own, including these:
"Do not make a fetish of getting on television." (Overemphasis on media events only reinforces, cynicism of journalists and citizens alike.)
"Tame White House-beat reporting by reducing reporters' expectations of full access to officials by directly asserting that the demands of leadership require a modicum of confidentiality.
"Shift reporters' attention from politics and plans to facts and figures." ("Dry" data are less newsworthy, and "this tactic should defuse complaints about total inaccesibility."
"Discourage personal mingling between press officers and other White House aides, and journalists." (This guards against "alcohol or fatigue-induced slips.")
Entman, who is not afraid to "use the word "Machiavellian," or the phrase "manipulate the press," is obviously unimpressed with journalists' traditional demands for a totally open administration.
"Show me where it says in the Constitiution that the president and his staff have to give the press access to everything they know, especially when it has to do with political strategy of gossip," Entman said at lunch recently. "The president is the leader. A leader is supposed to manipulate his resources."
And if the closing down of easy "gossip" sources fetters the press, well, "the press is inevitably fettered, and usually they place the fetters on themselves.
"To be effective, the president has to stand up to the press," Entman said. "McGovern believed in being open, and what did it get him? His campaign was in disarray, and he fed it by letting reporters wander all over his offices."
Carter was similarly injured by the mistaken supposition that equates openness with democracy, Entman said. It resulted in the public airing of the Vance-Brzezinski clash of styles. That dialogue should have been kept inside, in Entman's view.
The deleterious effects of openness are various, Entman argues. The executive should especially shy away from commenting on political strategies. "You hire Gerald Rafsh to pump up your image, you dont't really want the strategy headlined in the press. Or you have Carter and Meany not getting along -- so the press reports. After that, how can Carter handle Meany? Or Andy Young. Or Tip O'Neill. This business escalates like an arms race if you let it, and I'm saying the president doesn't have to let it."
All well and good, but is anybody listening? Entman has a Ph.D. in political science from Yale and a master's degree in public policy studies from Berkeley, and once spent three months as a reporter on the Providence Journal. He and other professor at Duke have just published a book entitled "Media Power Politics," which addresses how major institutions such as the Congress, police departments and special-interest groups manipulate the media and are in turn manipulated by it, so that "the effect is to confuse and decrease the potential power of the public."
So far, Entman says, the press has been less than altogether receptive. Two small papers editorialized against him, and "The Chicago Tribune called me a fool," and with the "Today" show coming up he's not expecting the dialogue to stop.
"Maybe it takes an outside expert to challenge the codes and traditions and underlying assumptions, and to ask the fundamental questions," Entman says. "It's unbelievably narrowminded to think that only professional journalists are qualified to judge the bahavior of the press."