President Reagan is increasingly frustrated by the failure of the economy to improve, and has begun to blame the television networks for contributing to a "downbeat" psychology that could delay recovery.
"You can't turn on evening news without seeing that they're going to interview someone else who has lost his job or they're outside the factory that has laid off workers or so forth--the constant downbeat--that can contribute to slowing down a new recovery that is in the offing," Reagan complained Tuesday in an interview with the Daily Oklahoman.
Describing television as "an entertainment medium . . . looking for the eye-catching and spectacular," the president continued: "Is it news that some fellow out in South Succotash someplace has just been laid off that he should be interviewed nationwide? . . . "
When a reporter asked Reagan whether his "rightful image as a compassionate, kind, generous man could be eroded by this sort of thing," Reagan replied: "I think there's not only a possibility, I think they've done a pretty good job of it. I'm Scrooge to a lot of people and if they only knew it, I'm the softest touch they've had for a long time."
The president's remarks appeared to be a backhanded admission that economic recovery is not proceeding as he had long predicted. But White House spokesman David R. Gergen, even while repeating Reagan's comments about the networks yesterday, contended that recovery will come on schedule in the second quarter.
Reagan's interview gave a rare glimpse of what one aide yesterday called "the first crack" in the confidence of the usually optimistic president. Increasingly, the aide said, Reagan privately criticizes what he regards as negative coverage by the press, especially national television. The president is said to be especially sensitive to accusations that his policies are unfair to working people, the poor and minorities.
In the friendly interview with the Oklahoman, the president, without mentioning the name of the station, gave as an egregious example of television coverage a story aired last November about a disabled Virginian who had been dropped from Social Security coverage.
"And his wife was crying and didn't know what they were going to do and the children were there all disconsolate and so forth," Reagan said. "I saw that on television. I went storming into the office in the morning. I said, 'Look, this guy is disabled. What are we doing?' We hadn't taken him off. He had been taken off in 1980 because it was found then that he was holding a job and had been holding a full-time job for three years while he was drawing disability payments."
David Nuell, news director of WRC, said yesterday that the president's account was inaccurate in every respect. He said the recipient, Stuart Kindrick, was removed from the Social Security rolls by Reagan and reinstated only last week and had not held a job since 1975. Further, said Nuell, he had advised deputy White House chief of staff Michael K. Deaver only last Friday that the president was citing the incident inaccurately.
Deaver, who confirmed that Reagan was referring to the WRC story, said that Kindrick was removed from the rolls because of a review conducted under legislation passed before Reagan became president, and not because of any administration budget cuts.
At the White House briefing Gergen was careful to say that he was not making a broad-scale attack on press coverage of the Reagan administration and that his remarks were directed only at the networks and only at specific stories rather than network coverage as a whole.
"Over the long haul we think the press coverage is eminently fair," Gergen said.
But Gergen was also critical of television coverage of administration involvement in El Salvador. And Reagan in his interview Tuesday criticized as damaging to the country unspecified network coverage of the administration's ultimately successful effort to sell sophisticated reconnaissance aircraft, known as Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes, to Saudi Arabia. The president made a similar criticism about publication in The Washington Post of notes of the senior staff meetings of Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and about a Post story last week reporting the authorization of covert operations in Nicaragua.
Asked whether "the leaks in The Washington Post in the Haig matter and also in the covert operations in Nicaragua were damaging to our foreign policy," Reagan said: "Yes, I think it is."
The president's comments are unlikely to presage a campaign against the press reminiscent of the days when Vice President Agnew made the fairness of media coverage a major national issue. But they do reflect the president's sensitivity over findings by pollsters that a majority of Americans question the fairness of his economic program.
Gergen yesterday readily acknowledged that widespread skepticism exists about the fairness of the economic program.
"There is a perception that this program is unfair," he said.