President Reagan took an indirect but clear shot at the news media last night when asked if he thought members of the media are "somehow unpatriotic" and have a "smug contempt for American values and principles."
He indicated that occasionally he is unhappy with news coverage and that there seems to be a "new school of what's called objective reporting in all of the media," which he indicated he thinks has superseded the old rules of putting news first and keeping the reporter's opinions out.
The questions were sparked by statements by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C) that the media has a liberal bias, and by Helms' attempt to mobilize conservatives to buy CBS stock and become "Dan Rather's boss."
On Wednesday, Attorney General Edwin Meese III urged reporters to drop their posture of detachment and help influence public opinion in the war on illegal drug traffic, saying that "there are no neutrals in the war on crime." The suggestion drew immediate criticism from media spokesmen who said only non-democratic governments use the press to control their people.
Helms and others have accused newspapers and television of having a contempt for traditional values. Reagan attempted to avoid the question of whether he subscribed to Helms' views, but he made his feelings about the media clear.
"No, but I'll tell you, I think I'll leave that argument to others, I won't even get into it . . . ," he said. "I just wish sometime you'd drop me a hint as to who some of those unidentified sources are in the White House."
He also was asked about Helms' attempt to get some measure of control over CBS.
"Boone Pickens? Was that who you were talking about?" he responded jokingly, referring to the oilman who tried to take control of Phillips Petroleum Co. "I know a merger is suggested for one and know this is often talked about . . . at times by people that find themselves unhappy with what they think is a bias. I don't have any comments on that. I just turn it on, look, and every once in a while scream a little -- to myself."
He then was asked whether he was "concerned about major sources of information, such as a network, being taken over by political activists, or do you think they already have been?"
"You just answered the question yourself," he responded. "No, maybe the whole thing is a new school of what's called objective reporting in all of the media in which the old rules, when I took journalism -- and I did actually -- you were supposed to tell the story based on who, what, where, when, putting first whichever one was the newsiest and had no opinions of your own."