Some compared it to a college fraternity rush, when a blackball meant rejection, often for the oddest reasons.
Others said it was like the old enemies-list days of Richard M. Nixon's administration when many journalists were embarrassed to be counted among the president's friends.
Still others said it was "outrageous" for the League of Women Voters to allow aides to President Reagan and Democratic nominee Walter F. Mondale to reject about 100 reporters for last night's presidential debate panel before finding journalists acceptable to both sides.
"When I found out they were picking and choosing, blackballing some and anointing others after they'd passed some kind of litmus test, I decided we shouldn't participate," New York Times Washington editor Bill Kovach said.
"We take the position that we don't allow the government to tell us who we can assign to the story or who can ask a question at a press conference," he said. "Why should they pick the people for the debate?"
Thus, Times reporter Gerald Boyd, a black whom Mondale reportedly had requested as a panelist for "racial balance," backed out. Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Charles McDowell said he, too, had refused the league's offer, because he had written a number of columns saying journalists should not be a part of the debate structure.
"Of course, maybe if I hadn't written so pontifically about it I might have done it. But I told them that I had taken such high ground, clearly I had a hypocrisy problem," McDowell said.
After a week of negotiations and a great deal of confusion, with some journalists invited and then uninvited to appear with moderator Barbara Walters of ABC News, League of Women Voters President Dorothy Ridings charged Saturday that the two presidential candidates had "abused" the process by rejecting some of the nation's most prestigious reporters.
In opening the debate last night, Walters injected a "personal note," saying, "The candidates were given a list of almost 100 qualified journalists from all of the media, and could agree on only these three fine journalists. As moderator and on behalf of my fellow journalists, I very much regret -- as does the League of Women Voters -- that this situation has occurred."
Ridings said the two candidates rejected, with almost no explanation, nearly 100 names, "every one of them an honorable, forthright, decent journalist." She refused to release the names of those rejected.
Ridings said that no journalists were vetoed by the candidates in 1976, when the same system was used.
One journalist was dropped from the debates in 1980. She said the league submitted 12 names last Monday to both camps. When the lists came back, only one name, reportedly James Wieghart of Scripps-Howard, had been approved by both sides. Wieghart was on the panel last night.
"As this went on last week," Ridings said, "we started getting more and more rejections and wondering what was going on. We started saying, 'Hey, guys, this is really ridiculous. What is up?' "
The stir left some journalists who weren't chosen to be on the panel more relieved than disappointed.
Jack Nelson, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, who reportedly was one of those rejected by the White House, said that, although he admired those chosen, "it's an insult to the journalists to be saying, 'No, we won't accept so-and-so because they won't be evenhanded.' "
For the three still on the list for this debate and those chosen for future ones, it remained an honor -- if a less straightforward one.
"I must be real fair or real insipid," joked Fred Barnes of the Baltimore Sun, one of the panelists last night along with Wieghart and Diane Sawyer of CBS News.
Barnes agreed with a number of other journalists that it would be better to have no journalists slowing down the candidates' give-and-take.
"I'm flattered to be on the panel, but I wish there weren't one," he said.
Although most news organizations allow or even encourage their reporters to be part of such a historic event, last night's debate has changed the rules, not only for The New York Times but also for CBS, where executives decided they no longer would participate after Sawyer completed her questioning for this one.
The Washington Post's policy has been to bar reporters covering the campaign from appearing in political debates.
Campaign officials for both candidates acknowledged problems in selecting the panelists. Frank Donatelli, representing the Reagan campaign, and Les Francis of the Mondale campaign were to meet this morning with league representatives to try to reach a compromise that would prevent disputes about the reporters' panel for the second presidential debate Oct. 21 and the debate Thursday between Vice President Bush and Geraldine A. Ferraro.
Within hours of the league's complaint, both campaigns were trying to use the flap to advantage. A Mondale adviser told reporters that that camp believed that Reagan staff members were rejecting reporters for "ideological reasons" and that Mondale had chosen Boyd because he wanted a black on the panel.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes told reporters on Air Force One en route to Louisville that Reagan's staff had approved a number of women, blacks and Hispanics who were rejected "either by the league or the other side."
A senior official, speaking on background aboard the plane, said that among those rejected by the White House were former Washington Post assistant managing editor William Greider, now of Rolling Stone Magazine; Jerrold L. Schecter, former spokesman for President Carter's national security affairs adviser who now is with Esquire Magazine; and John Seigenthaler, publisher of the Nashville Tennessean and editorial page editor of USA Today, who is close to the Kennedy family.
"I don't think the tone or tenor or content would have been any different than if any other of the 100 of us who were rejected were on the panel. I basically think that it's campaign paranoia -- on both sides," Seigenthaler said.
White House officials said the number of journalists turned down by the president's aides was closer to 20 than the 50 suggested by the league.
Ridings said that both sides vetoed about the same number, but said the total number was closer to 100. It was first reported that 112 names were submitted, but some were duplicates.
Mondale's campaign chairman, James A. Johnson, said yesterday on CBS' "Face the Nation" that the Mondale campaign "never wanted reporters involved in the debate. We wanted Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale all alone on that stage asking questions of each other, going back and forth."
He said that Mondale had wanted "the toughest possible reporters."
"We wanted reporters who would come on with aggressive questions, be very contentious, make it clear that there were big questions that needed to be answered -- and that's the kind of reporters we tried to approve," Johnson said. "I guess that didn't appeal to the White House."