Four of the nation's largest newsgathering organizations have made voluntary payments to the U.S. Treasury to cover the costs of office space and supplies in Congress, the White House and other federal buildings that the government has traditionally provided for them free of charge.
"The government has an obligation to provide press facilities to legitimate reporters, but we don't believe that the taxpayers should subsidize these costs, at least for news organizations that can pay their own way," said Robert Boyd, Washington bureau chief of Knight -- Ridder Newspapers.
Officials of Knight -- Ridder, CBS News and The Wall Street Journal recently sent $1,000 checks to U.S. Treasurer Azie T. Morton to help defray 1979 costs of supplies and space in the congressional press galleries, the White House and several large federal agencies.
The Washington Post sent Morton a $1,250 check to defray these expenses. Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee said yesterday that the newspaper is considering similar payments for office space provided by state and local governments.
"It's impossible to put a precise value on this," said Wall Street Journal Washington bureau chief Mike Miller, "so I picked a number out of the air and sent $1,000 as a voluntary contribution for this year which will increase next year because of inflation."
"The press has a right of access, Miller said, "but I don't think we should be accepting free paper, telephones and desks."
New officials said yesterday that the voluntary payments have been an often -- debated issue in media circles since 1977, when Rep. David Obey [DWis.] criticized a CBS News report detailing congressional privleges. In a strongly worded speech to the Western Wisconsin Press Association, Obey charged that powerful news organizations failed to scrutinize previleges they enjoy.
"We've been brooding about that issue since Obey made that speech," said Boyd of Knight -- Ridder. Boyd said that a report on the issue ealier this year by the Standing Committee of Correspondents did not recommend such payments, but that several large news organizations decide to make them anyway.
"If we go around and say that other people should not freeload, then we should pay for this, we should practice what we preach," said Boyd.
Bill Kovach, Washington editor of the New York Times, said yesterday that his newspaper will not make a voluntary annual payment.
"It's a question of access by the press," Kovach said. "The press has a legitimate right of access in these places and the members of the New York Times all pay taxes and support government buildings and government operations."
Washington Star executive editor Sidney Epstein said that his newspaper would make a payment "if everybody else in the press gallery decided to do it."