MR. REAGAN, right on schedule (within about a year of any president's inauguration, terminal disillusion with the press sets in), let the networks have it the other day. There have been other Reagan expressions of despair concerning the print press recently as well. The newest complaint is that television is presenting a distorted, alarmist picture of the economic condition of the country and, in the process, could actually slow the recovery itself.
Before the ritual, self-pitying shrieks of the press are heard in response, with all the talk about "chilling effects" and official repression and the near certainty of leg-irons to come, it would be nice if for once we could stay calm. It is the most natural thing in the world for a government whose every action is dogged and described by others--not always fairly and, if fairly, not necessarily flatteringly--to resent it, to see a better side, to rage at the fact that all the mitigating and complicating factors it knows about are not included on the front page or on the 6 o'clock news. And where is it written, anyway, that presidents are not allowed to beef, and beef in public, about the quality of the coverage their administration is getting?
To us, the crucial questions all concern the substance of what Mr. Reagan said, not his God-given, inalienable and uninteresting right to say it. This is because, at one level, the president was actually charging the press with doing precisely what the press and others have charged him with doing: arguing from anecdote, reaching large and sweeping conclusions on the basis of individual and possibly atypical cases. The president complained that a recent hard-luck- story fellow, who appeared on the tube, complete with weeping wife and disconsolate children, in actual fact had not been victimized by the particular act of government that the program had suggested he had been. So he and the station fell to arguing about the facts of the case and apparently still are.
All of the foregoing only proves, it seems to us, what we regard as the newly emerging Rule of the Anecdote. Its invariables are these: the story itself will turn out to have something wrong with it. However, even though it does, some other story in which the identical set of things happens certainly exists and is certainly true and will certainly in time be dredged up. There is somewhere, in other words, at least one accurate and one inaccurate version of every anecdote the mind of man has yet to conceive, and this tells you absolutely nothing about how good or bad things are for large numbers of people not included in the anecdote. That is the truth about anecdotes.
Our guess is that people in Washington are always looking for a single flesh-and-blood illustrative case because they are so sick of the bloodless statistics and trends and abstractions that are the stuff of political discourse here. But the unpleasant fact is that those statistics and trends and abstractions can tell the story. And in the general area the president was complaining about, they just happen to tell a story at variance with the one he wishes were true.
"Is it news," Mr. Reagan asked, "that some fellow in South Succotash someplace has just been laid off that he should be interviewed nationwide?" Unfortunately, it is not news--not news in the sense of being either distinctive or uncommon. They're being laid off in East Succotash too and North Succotash and West Baked Potato. That is what the unanecdotal, but undisputed facts and figures show. There is, in short, much hardship proceeding from parts of the president's program, and much anxiety of worse things to come. Both are real. That is where our quarrel with Mr. Reagan's observations lies.
The president says he resents the implication that he is personally some sort of insensitive, uncaring man on this score. We believe him when he says he isn't. We also believe it is insensitive and uncaring to try to belittle the economic ordeal so many Americans are enduring. The only way to square these two beliefs is to hold yet a third--namely, that the president doesn't know how bad things are. He had better find out. An administration that ignores the economic distress that has become a fact of life for so many of its citizens is in danger of becoming little more than an anecdote itself.