By a curious coincidence of timing, an attempt to wipe out one of the Nixon administration's measures against a free press comes just as the Carter administration is developing a deep resentment and suspicion of the press. A case before the Federal Court of Appeals in Washington would deny the government the right to subpoena from AT&T the long-distance toll records of news reporters.
That right has been used to run down the sources of news stories. As one example, the Department of Justice subpoenaed the toll records of the Washington bureau of the New York Times for a period of six months. The toll slips were then fanned out to FBI agents around the country charged with running down the individuals who were called and questioning them about informations they may have furnished.
This war, of course, only one of the techniques used by the Nixon White House. The climax came in what was almost a vendetta when President Nixon, in October 1973, said he had never seen such outrageous, vicious, distorted reporting in 27 years of public life.
That charge, made in a news conference as the case for his impeachment and ultimate resignation began to build up, contributed to the belief of many conservative Republicans that the President had been driven out of office by the press. While feeling in the Cater White House is nothing like as strong, there is a kind of parallel in the Bert Lance affair.
Asked at his sad, almost tearful, press conference announcing lance's resignation if he thought that his close friend and director of the Office of Management and Budget had been unfairly drummed out of office, Carter replied that in general he felt the media had been fair.
Beneath the surface the feeling is, however, one of doubt and resentment. It covers growing concern among Carter's principal associates about the difficulty of conducting orderly government in the face of competitive investigative reporting.
Take one example widely discussed in the Cabinet. the Treasury sent to the White House a confidential memorandum covering the views of Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal and members of his staff on tax reform. This wayintented solely as a guide for the President in shaping his recommendations to Congress.
Six copies were sent to the White House. Within a short time one had been obtained by a reporter for The New York Times and it was a lead story. Immediately ths seemed to freeze, according to the sources involved, the potential for discussion of changes in the tax structure.
The blame might properly be put on the leaker rather than leakee. And indeed there were sharp recriminations in the White House over how the document was made available. This is one instance of what is felt to be the inroads on government confidentiality not so much by advocacy journalism as by adversary journalism.
I have been reading Robert Donovan's "Crisis and Conflict," the carefully researched account of Harry Truman's first four years in the presidency. the analogy with Carter is striking. The Truman White House was riddled with leaks, and dissension within the government complicated the overwhelming problems of postwar adjustment.
Although Truman had been in the Senate since 1934, he was woefully ignorant of the responsibilities of administration in a time of crisis. As Republican attacks quickly began on him and as his own party in the Congress was torn by divisions, it was taken for granted that he would be a one-term President. Truman fooled the prophets and the nation when he was reelected in 1948.
Already the one-term-President label is being applied to Carter. Somewhat the same divisions in the party are apparent today as in that earlier era.
Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier (D-Wis.) has pushed for two years a bill to require a judicial order prior to federal inspection of bank, credit card, toll and other records. This is intended as blanket protection for the vast amount of material on the lives of virtually all Americans. Kastenmeier and toher liberal sponsors tried last year and again this year without success to get administration support.
Within the administration the feeling is strong that constant reporting of friction, some of it nature or exaggerated, contributes to a lack of confidence. This is reflected in the declining stock market and other indicators. Nothing like the Nixon vendetta is conceivable in the Carter administration, yet the grumbling is a fact of life.