BERT LANCE charges that he has been hounded and persecuted, unfairly and unremittingly, by the newspapers - including this one. The charges are serious, and Mr. Lance attaches to them the dangerous suggestion that the ultimate remedy may be censorship. In his talk yesterday to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Mr. Lance vigorously pursued a familiar line of argument: that the press, mindlessly competitive and increasingly addicted to a diet of political scandal, is devouring the institutions of orderly government. It is a line that has frequently been seized in recent years by figures - Spiro Agnew always come first to mind - in the country's recurrent seminars on public morals and public office. Mr. Lance has specifically cited news stories and editorials, and we shall try to be specific in reply.
Mr. Lance believes that he was driven from his office as President Carter's director of management and budget by a press that, bored and restless after Watergate, hungered for another scandal.Our own view is that, while the press may have power, you could hardly prove it by last year's Lance case. Many of the key facts had been repeatedly published for months, but nothing happened until last summer when the president asked a Senate committee to release Mr. Lance from a promise to sell his bank stock. That was the trigger. The committee asked the comptroller of the currency to have a look, and it was the comptroller's report that ultimately forced Mr. Lance out of the White House. It listed Mr. Lance's overdrafts and the repeated violations of certain disclosure laws.
Mr. Lance had hoped, he says, that the press would leave him alone after he resigned from office. Instead, he finds the reporters following his current affairs with a constant and unwelcome interest. Why? One reason is that Mr. Lance's current affairs involve an attempt at taking over a bank holding company called Financial Bankshares, not only one of the largest companies in this area but the owner of a number of local banks. This paper was following the takeover with care before it realized that Mr. Lance was involved.
But there's another reason for legitimate public interest in and concern about Mr. Lance's business activities. That is his continuing and sedulous advertisement of his Carter connection. He talks often to the president, and talks constantly about it to everyone else. He was in the middle of that fund-raising affair, attended by Mr. Carter, in Georgia last winter. Mr. Lance is, you might say, using public property.
As an example of "careless, erroneous or biased reporting," Mr. Lances cites the assertion that - while in public office - he met two other men at the Metropolitan Club and discussed the Financial General purchase. That accusation was made, not by newspapers, but by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The newspapers reported the SEC change, a distinction that Mr. Lance keeps losing. In Mr. Lance's view, the proper procedure for the press would have been to ask the three men if it were true and, on receiving denials, to drop the matter. That's absurb. The SEC is not a frivolous agency, and its charges deserve public attention. We note, incidentally, that Mr. Lance does not deny the meeting. He denies only that the three talked about Financial General. One of those men was the seller of Financial General, and the third was the buyer. Mr. Lance wants the SEC to retract the charge. The SEC says that it has no intention of retracting it.
Mr. Lance fears that his treatment by the press will dissuade other businessmen in the future from seeking public responsibility.We doubt it; not all businessmen's methods are similar to Mr. Lance's. He also fears that, if the present style of public exposure continues, the result may be censorship. But, to help Mr. Lance, a censor would have to be prepared to suppress official documents of public record like the comptroller's report and the SEC complaint. It is there, and not in the reporting, that Mr. Lance's troubles are rooted.