To get some idea of the fever infecting the news media over reports of dirty tricks inside and outside the White House in 1980, consider this:
At 6:30 p.m. July 6, correspondent Dan Rather told his network audience that CBS "had learned" that The Washington Post "will report" the next morning "that a "mole" in the Carter White House provided several memoranda to the Reagan campaign staff.
Shortly thereafter AP repeated the substance of CBS's announcement, saying that the memoranda were passed by a "volunteer" in the Reagan campaign and addressed to Edwin Meese, now counselor to the president, campaign manager William Casey, now director of the CIA, and Robert Gray, then a campaign official, currently a public relations executive in Washington.
By this time AP was telephoning around trying to locate a man named Dan Jones, who would be identified as the link between the mole and Reagan campaign personnel. "Everybody with that name in Washington area telephone books who answered Wednesday night denied being the Dan Jones in question," said AP.
All of this, mind you, occurred before Post reporter Martin Schram finished writing the story the others were reporting on, "What if I had decided I didn't have enough to go on, and the story didn't run," Mr. Schram said later. Can there be a mole inside The Post?
No one would deny it under oath. But a more plausible explanation for the journalistic frenzy could be tht White House officials, having been asked for reaction to the story in the making at The Post, had prepared a contingency response, which other journalists heard about.
The latest mess from a dirty-tricks file, if you've just joined us, can be traced back to that one-paragraph disclosure in "Gambling With History," a good read of a book on Ronald Reagan's first two years in office by time magazine White House correspondent Laurence Barrett. There it was certified that filched material was surreptitiously passed to the Reagan campaign staff in advance of the critical Carter-Reagan pre-election debate.
Initially, it was ho-hum news, reported as a six-inch item in the back pages of The Post June 9.In fact, it twice failed to impress Mr. Barrett's editors at Time when he reported the event, having learned of it from David Stockman in early 1981 after Mr. Reagan's inauguration. Had he known it prior to the election "it would have been a bigger deal," says Mr. Barrett.
The disclosure, which, as Mr. Barrett observes, "is used to make another point" in his book, did not catch fire with the daily press until reporters were provided copies of what former Carter associates said had been filched, and The Post op-ed page featured a don't take-this-news-with-a-yawn column by former White House press secretary Jody Powell. Later, Mr. Schram and Post reporter Howard Kurtz delineated exchanges from the 1980 debate to demonstrate that Mr. Reagan had benefited from the material.
By this time, administration officials were issuing statements that were colliding in mid-air. The White House released hundreds of pages of Carter material in its possession, Mr. Reagan was dogged at a press conference, and the news media was in full pursuit. The Post has run about 30 news stores, most of them front-page, more than 20 fiercely opinionated syndicated, staff and guest columns and one sound handle-with-care editorial.
Addressing the press at large, the editorial said, "We think it will make a real difference if someone was sent in to swipe it, for example, as distinct from someone's merely receiving the briefing book as leaked goods. In this connection, we don't mind cautioning some of our fellow journalists that a profession which has insisted as firmly as ours has -- and with good reason -- that leaked presidential (and other governmental) material is not stolen goods might be just a tad more careful about maintaining the distinction."
No one can be sure how this story will end. It is in Justice Department hands, but not out of those of the press. At first, Carter-side sources pushed it. Now leads are coming from current and former Reagan administration officials, as Mr. Schram's July 7 story and a New York Times piece the same day show. All together this has the look of the two-tier mug's game with the news media crawling over one another to get a leg up.
More than any outlet, The Post has been "advancing" the story. Whether it has been overdone here and elsewhere is a topic of increasing discussion. Post executive editor Ben Bradlee has said, "I am absolutely convinced we don't know everything . . . I believe there's more coming. Until I'm sure there isn't more, it is Post policy to keep reporters on the case."
Perhaps it was inevitable. Rep. Donald J. Albosta (D-Mich.), whose letters to Messrs. Baker, Casey, Gergen and Stockman elicited contradictory answers and led to Mr. Reagan's request for the Justice Department takeover, has now introduced the prospect that "sexual favors" may have been a part of the dirty tricks. What next?