It may be understandable that Ronald Reagan is feeling these days like Winston Churchill, who once said: "It's better to be making the news than taking it."
Well before David Stockman's admittedly "loose talk" and Richard Allen's current Japanese predicament made the news circuits, there was that flurry of reports about the search-and-destroy mission Secretary of State Alexander Haig believed was aimed at him from the White House. It was the equivalent, said Haig, "of sabotage of the president." The president then, acting on the McLuhan principle that the medium is the message, stepped in publicly to urge restraint on the press against circulating these "rumors," which "are destructive to our dealings worldwide." For emphasis, he called upon the "patriotism" of reporters. What is noteworthy in this is less what the president said than what the press hasn't. Maybe, though, the press has developed a new cool and maybe the president didn't mean exactly what he said. Maybe it was just a collision without injury; which shouldn't imply that collisions are without risk.
In earlier periods, such importunings from a president or lesser official could be counted on to produce tremors in editorial rooms, as former Secretary of State Dean Rusk once learned when he uncharacteristically and unwisely asked a senior diplomatic reporter: "Whose side are you on?" That occurred during the Vietnam War, when just about everybody's temper had frayed and the government/press relationship was already going through a bad patch. Except for this gaffe, Rusk enjoyed generally good press relations, as is the case to date with Reagan.
These are discrete encounters, of different weights, separated by subject and time. What they illustrate, though, is the endurance of a presumption that the government has some inherent right to define what is news and, as important, what is not. This presumption has misled different administrations in substantial ways as--among other things--the Pentagon Papers demonstrated 10 years ago. It is a mistaken view held more often by political officials than career ones and one that creates public misunderstanding. What the government does possess--and everyone understands this--is an enormous capacity to create news and an allowance, like any other enterprise, for putting the best face on it. Additionally, in carrying out its responsibility to inform, it has the inherent privilege at times to keep its mouth shut.
Once information is in the hands of the press, however, it is the call of reporters and editors as to how it is used. To the government this feels uncomfortably like the short end of the stick, causing officials to believe that Thomas Jefferson was talking through his hat when he said: "If I had to choose between a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter." Others just assume that all newsroom dicta is derived from James Thurber's essay on the letter "P," of "predicament, plight, problem, perplexity, pickle, pretty pass, puzzle, pit, pitfall and palindrome." Nearly everything, that is, but patience. It would be humorous if it weren't serious.
Of course the press sees differently. Among other things, it presumes that the government withholds more than it willingly gives' and, whatever the length of the stick, the body politic has the better handle and won't hesitate to use it to threaten the press. Don't conclude from this, which can be an overworked presumption, that the press is without power. One needs only Watergate to be impressed by its application. Still, according to a current Los Angeles Times poll, only about half the public believes the press exercises its power "responsibly." Showing some mixed signals, the same poll says the press has done "more to promote the public good" than government, business or labor and that it expects the press to be "aggressive." This last point is one editors and reporters should pursue with great care.
Opportunities for conflict exist all along the line that constitutionally separates the government and the press. As the government must not confound its role, neither should the press by confusing aggressiveness with arrogance--what has been called the "know-it-all, tell-it-all" attitude. Critics and ordinary readers see traces of arrogance in what they regard as a slide toward more subjectivity in reporting. Most editors defend the trend as necessary because of the complexities of public issues. Fair enough. But they need be concerned that journalism is not proclaiming objectivity more than it is practicing it. More subtly than a call from government for patriotism, perhas, goatish subjectivity with the news will create its own conflict. The line between these two important estates should be clear of unnecessary static. Then, neither can charge, "it's your end of the boat that's sinking."