Attorney General Edwin Meese said today that the administration is considering initiating talks with U.S. media representatives on the question of whether their coverage of the recent TWA hijacking was "helpful or hurtful from the standpoint of getting the crisis ended in a satisfactory manner."
"We're going to be looking at a lot of things now, and certainly cooperation with the media is one of them," Meese said at a news conference after a speech to the American Bar Association annual meeting here.
International terrorism, and the role that the media allegedly plays in encouraging it, has been a theme throughout the ABA convention. In a speech Monday, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called on the media to adopt a "voluntary code of conduct" to avoid giving terrorists the publicity they "thrive" on.
In a speech today, Thatcher continued what aides called a new "enthusiasm" for promoting a more responsible press in general and questioned whether the domestic news media "accurately reflect" life in Britain. She implied that recent critical coverage of some of her own policies had been slanted.
Since the June 30 release of 39 American hostages held by TWA airliner hijackers in Beirut, a number of adminstration spokesmen have been sharply critical of media coverage of the crisis, which included extensive television interviews with the hostages, arranged by their captors, in which they appeared to sympathize with the hijackers' aims.
During an ABA panel Monday, State Department legal adviser Abraham D. Sofaer described a "media extravaganza that gave irresponsibility and tastelessness a new meaning."
In the wake of that description, however, Meese today emphasized that the administration has a deep respect for press freedom and is interested only in cooperative efforts between media and government. He said he would be "hesitant of any legal remedy" to restrict the media.
"I don't think any legislative approach can be effective," he said. "The ability of the press to speak freely is an important tenet of our constitutional guarantees.
"I think on the other hand that there is an area of mutual good will on the part of the press and law enforcement authorities . . . there are areas where the press itself is not only willing but anxious to cooperate."
Among the general measures Meese mentioned were "conferences and discussions with the news media" that could lead to "cooperation on the part of the press to delay the release of information which would be inimicable to the peaceful or rapid solution of a particular operation, or perhaps temporarily withhold information or even withhold some interviews that might be dangerous or endanger captives if they're hostages or endanger the successful conclusion of the operation."
Meese said that he did not know "whether something reduced to writing is important, perhaps some principles reduced to writing" governing news media behavior "might be helpful."
In a speech today to a northeastern England regional television company, Thatcher focused on news media treatment of more mundane local issues.
"I often hear media people say that they hold up a mirror to society," she said. "This, I am sure, is what the best and most objective reporters seek to do.
"But this raises the question of whether the media . . . accurately reflect the life of the nation, given that the news in their terms is so often of violence, tragedy, conflict, distress -- and that a concentrated diet of these things makes it very difficult to see life in perspective."
She listed "some current examples" of how the local press had skewed the national perspective, all of which referred to recent critical coverage of the government.
"The word 'cut' these days has come to be used when there is an increaee but not as big an increase as has been demanded," she said. Although Thatcher promised to cut public spending, it has increased during her six years in office. But there has been strong criticism from the political opposition and the public that the level and quality of public services have fallen sharply.
"Being 'dogmatic' is when governments refuse to give in to every whim of every pressure group," Thatcher said in a second example of press distortion. The Thatcher government also has been criticized for intransigence in dealing with labor unions and interest groups.
In a third example, she said that, according to some press accounts, "Being 'indifferent' is when government states truly and without fear of refutation that governments simply can't solve every problem." Criticized for the high level of unemployment in Britain, Thatcher has called on the jobless to become more flexible and innovative rather than to depend on government welfare payments -- leading to additional charges that she does not care about the suffering of those who legitimately cannot find work.