More sins are committed by journalists through our habit of labeling and categorizing people and situations than by any other means. Seeking to impose a simple- minded order on the confusing and ambiguous events and characters we deal with every day, we fall back on what we know are sloppy categories: hawks and doves, liberals and conservatives, hard- liners and pragmatists, etc., etc.
Similarly, with events. In the journalistic labeling game, any political scandal touching the presidency is now a Something-Gate. After Watergate (an office building, before it became a generic term), we had Koreagate, Lancegate, Billygate and probably some other Gates that escape recollection. Now it is Debategate or Briefing-gate as the catch- phrase to define the still unfolding saga of the Reagan organization's acquisition of papers prepared for Jimmy Carter's use in the 1980 presidential campaign.
The mischief in labeling is that it sometimes distorts reality. On the basis of what is known now, not only is this not another Watergate, it is almost exactly the opposite.
In Watergate, we knew from the first moment that a crime had been committed. Men were arrested for breaking and entering the offices of the Democratic National Committee. That is a crime, no matter what the identity or motives of the perpetrators.
What was very unclear was what the break-in had yielded or was supposed to yield; who had organized, directed, controlled and financed it; and what their purpose was. The time-consuming business was establishing the link to the White House and ultimately to the president.
The current matter is of a different character. The links to the White House are unquestioned. A great deal of material that belonged to Carter's staff and advisers went from the White House to people who were working for Reagan. It was read and used by people for whom it was not intended. As a result of Reagan's victory, some of them now occupy high government positions. In fact, some of them put the tainted material into their own White House files.
What has not been alleged--far less proven--is that there was any crime committed in the course of acquiring that material. If there was, then the consequences should be--and undoubtedly will be--severe. But unless and until that is proven, we should not be using a journalistic label that suggests there was such a crime.
That is particularly true, because in the current case, there is no evidence or intimation of the other major element of Watergate: the cover-up. From beginning to end, the Reaganites have been casually to aggressively open about what they had.
David Stockman, in a braggart speech on the day of the 1980 presidential debate, told a luncheon audience that he had benefited from "pilfered" Carter papers in impersonating the sitting president during rehearsals with Reagan. It was the sheer inefficiency of the journalistic system--the failure of the local paper and the national news services to recognize the importance of the story published in Elkhart, Ind.--that spared Stockman and Reagan from the uproar that surely would have resulted.
Stockman then told a Time correspondent about it, and he was unable to get the story into his magazine. Only when Time's Laurence Barrett published it in book form and former Carter staffers cried foul did the journalistic world take up the chase.
President Reagan was as slow on the uptake in this case as the press, but once he had the situation explained to him, his reaction was to order total cooperation by his aides with the investigation. Almost every day since then, embarrassed Reagan staffers have been finding--and making available to investigators--additional Carter materials in their files.
The critical question now is the path by which those papers traveled--the hands that removed them from the Carter White House and campaign offices or copied them for transmittal and the hands that received them. The wheels are turning that will give the answers, and there is no way they can be stopped. But until those answers are forthcoming, there is a case for journalistic self-restraint. Let's leave the Gates closed until there is cause to open them.