President Reagan, seeking to dispel any feeling that "there's a storm brewing between me and the news industry," yesterday praised the "fine job" the "overwhelming majority" of reporters are doing.
But a few hours later, the daily White House press briefing turned into a series of sharp exchanges between reporters and White House communications director David Gergen over Reagan's criticism of a local television report on a man whose federal disability benefits had been cut off.
In a speech to the National Association of Manufacturers, the president departed from his prepared text to say that while there might be "a little momentary frustration or misunderstanding" between him and reporters, he agreed with Thomas Jefferson that "if it were left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
The Washington Post reported yesterday that Reagan, increasingly frustrated by the failure of the economy to improve, was blaming the television networks for contributing to a "downbeat" psychology that could delay recovery.
The article quoted from Reagan's interview earlier this week with the Daily Oklahoman, in which he said one egregious example of this was a report last November by a local TV station, which Reagan did not identify, about a disabled Virginian who had been dropped from Social Security coverage.
When administration officials investigated, Reagan told the newspaper, they found that the man had been taken off the rolls in 1980, before his administration, because the man had been holding a full-time job for three years while drawing disability benefits.
Stan Bernard, a reporter for WRC, which aired the report, showed up for Gergen's press briefing yesterday, documents about the disability case in hand, to question whether the president was aware that his anecdote "was inaccurate on two or three counts."
That was all it took to touch off more than a half hour of sharp, sometimes angry, exchanges between Gergen and Bernard and the rest of the White House press corps.
WRC later conceded that it had erred in reporting that the benefits had been taken away from Stuart Kindrick of Fredericksburg because of Reagan budget cuts. In fact, Kindrick, a welder partially paralyzed on his left side, temporarily lost his benefits last summer, but under a law and regulations enacted in the Carter administration. His benefits have since been restored.
WRC and Kindrick's attorney still deny Reagan's contention that Kindrick worked while drawing benefits.
Bernard demanded the White House's evidence on this point. Gergen said he did not know whether the president's statement that Kindrick had been working for three years while receiving aid was "accurate or not. . . . I trust that someone told the president that he had been working."
The issue, Gergen said, is that Reagan "was being portrayed as Scrooge"--lacking compassion for the poor--in television reports.
A reporter countered, "Why did the president feel free to hold this man Kindrick up to ridicule as a negative example when you made clear he the president was not in full possession of the facts?"
Gergen angrily objected to the word "ridicule," and ended the session by saying: "We all have trouble in a very complicated world of making sure we have every single fact straight. The question is whether the larger points are right."