Who is Robert Pear, and why is much of official Washington slicing him up?

A New York Times reporter whose mild manner and whispered voice often draw comparisons to Clark Kent, Pear has emerged as the journalistic Superman of the health care debate. His front-page reports on President Clinton's plan have so rattled the White House that officials once staged a full-scale briefing on a Sunday to rebut him.

The National Journal says Pear has "gotten enough leaks to fill Lake Erie and {has} become a lightning rod for administration officials and other reporters who complain that he's often wrong."

Columnist Michael Kinsley blames Pear for the growing opposition to the Clinton plan, saying that "the longer Bob Pear and his ilk are allowed to roam the landscape kicking interest groups until they bark, the more it will seem as if Clinton's reform plan is full of terrible disadvantages."

Pear's admirers call such criticism ludicrous.

"I think he's the best reporter in Washington," said Phil Gailey, editorial page editor of the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, who worked with Pear at the New York Times and the old Washington Star. "He's the closest thing I've ever seen to an honest and fair-minded reporter."

In a larger sense, the controversy is about whether journalists can cover the complex health care debate without reducing it to another finger-pointing Washington food fight. For Pear stands accused of doing what most successful reporters do: feeding off leaks, publishing confidential documents, sowing the seeds of conflict. The reason it gets more attention is that he does it in one of the most prominent spots in American journalism: the Times's front page.

Despite the saturation coverage of health care, most people remain confused about the jargon-laden issue. A poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Times Mirror Center and Columbia Journalism Review found that only 20 percent of the public understands the term "managed competition," the centerpiece of the Clinton plan. In a survey by Darrell West of Brown University, 48 percent said the media have done only a fair or poor job of covering health care.

"There has been a ton of coverage, but a big part of the coverage has focused on the clash of personalities as opposed to the clash of ideas," West said. "People hear two dozen different groups offering different criticisms and it leads to confusion. It has been a blur."

Almost no one churns out more health care stories than Pear, 44, a 14-year Times veteran who specializes in domestic policy. A workaholic of legendary habits, Pear is said to call sources as late as 2 a.m.

He has been a whirlwind in recent weeks, providing a megaphone for interest groups picking apart the president's plan: "Influential Group Says Health Plan Slights the Aged." "Business Group Assails Scope and Cost of Clinton Health Plan."

The Times gives these reports big display -- 55 of Pear's 130 stories this year have run on the front page -- and that helps shape the agenda for news organizations across the country.

"You will not find a health care journalist in this town who has not grated his or her teeth about the amount of time they have to spend responding to stories that appear in the New York Times," said Susan Dentzer, economics columnist for U.S. News & World Report. "There's a sense of amazement about why they were played on Page 1."

One front-page rocket that set off sparks was Pear's Sept. 30 story, "AMA Rebels Over Health Plan in Major Challenge to President." Pear played up the American Medical Association's mailing of 700,000 letters urging physicians to lobby for changes in the Clinton plan.

The Los Angeles Times reported the same day that the AMA would be "neutral" on the plan, relegating the group's mailing to the 14th paragraph. A top White House aide took the L.A. Times piece to Clinton, who was so pleased to have a report to counter Pear's that he called his wife, Hillary, and told her to mention the article to congressional leaders.

Pear "ignored everything that we agreed with the president on and only emphasized the disagreements," said James Todd, the AMA's executive vice president.

"I think Bob Pear is a terrific reporter," Dentzer said, "but one of his great skills is not putting things in their fullest context, and the stories end up having a hyperbolic tone."

But is Pear responsible for "political paralysis" on health care, as Kinsley wrote last week? "I thought it was humorous to portray this mild-mannered, legendarily scrupulous reporter as some kind of monster," Kinsley said. "I certainly don't have any problem with his journalism. I thought it would be funny to blame the whole mess on Bob Pear."

The most common complaint among rival reporters is that Pear portrays minor blips -- a draft memo, a mid-level leak, a policy option -- as major developments. In a front-page story Sept. 12, he reported that administration officials "said they were considering several options, including a new federal tax on hospitals." The White House trotted out health guru Ira Magaziner to assure reporters no such tax was in the works.

"You can't sit there and say the story was inaccurate, but he'd been told by a number of people on background that that simply was not going to happen," said Jeff Eller, the White House media affairs director. "No one else wrote that story, and there's a lot of smart people out there covering health care."

Pear declined to be interviewed for this article, but Washington editor Andrew Rosenthal sees "a strong element of White House spin" in the recent criticism. "Robert is the guy who specializes in getting inside the decision-making process, and government officials can't stand that. The White House has been complaining about Robert since the day they started the health care program."

Still, in an era when the highest-paid journalists are those who trade insults on television, the question lingers: How does this shy, bespectacled fellow slip on the red cape and soar above his colleagues?

"He's meek and mild and soft-spoken around the newsroom," Gailey said, "but on the telephone, talking to a source, I would hate to be on the other end of the phone. He's a tiger."