By late yesterday afternoon, the White House press corps had nicknamed the day's noisy morning news briefing with the president "The Great Cacophony."
But that is a fancy way of saying that three major network newsmen -- all with deep bass voices -- tried to outshout each other in asking President Reagan a few unscheduled questions. And the result, as television viewers witnessed live at 9:03 a.m. on all three networks, was that nobody -- including the man they wanted answers from -- could hear their questions.
"This sort of thing is not necessary," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. " . . . There's simply no excuse for bad manners, and these guys were trying to shout each other down. Before the president came, they were bragging about shouting each other down, and two of them got into it after he left," he said.
The three strongest voices that could barely be disentangled as they shouted questions to the president were those of ABC's Sam Donaldson, NBC's Chris Wallace and CBS' Bill Plante. After the president's four-minute appearance before the news media, Donaldson and Wallace were seen in a heated argument over who would tape his report at a highly valued spot in front of the president's podium.
Donaldson, who acknowledges he was "boiling" when Wallace tried to take his normal position, said that when it became apparent Wallace wasn't going to move, "I moved him."
As Donaldson and others recall the exchange, Wallace said: "You're just mad because he wouldn't answer your question. You just hear the footsteps behind you," a reference Donaldson has used to refer to the army of young reporters who would like his job.
"If you do, they're not yours. Yours are too faint to be heard," Donaldson recalls saying and other witnesses recall hearing.
Wallace, reached later as he was leaving his office, said he was rushing to take his son to a class and had no time to elaborate. "My son's class is more important than that," he said.
But for many reporters the on-camera contentiousness was the most troubling. It made them look bad and, worse, the president did not have a chance to use what time they had with him to answer questions. In fact, at one point, the three television newsmen and several other reporters shouted questions nonstop for almost 16 seconds until Reagan asked NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell to "interpret for me."
"It's a damn shame," Plante said, "but I don't know any other way to get his attention. This is a method of trying to get him to say something, and it isn't very elegant.
"I feel terrible about that, and I guess we owe the viewers an apology," Plante said. "But I also feel very strongly that we need to get him to respond."
Donaldson said: "I regret what it must have looked like and sounded like to people watching television. But more than that I regret that this kind of barrage of questioning does not serve its purpose."
"It was crazy," said Associated Press correspondent Barry Schweid. "If they all scream at the same time and they can all match Donaldson's volume, then you can't hear what's going on."
Although some White House correspondents were irritated at their colleagues, more seemed concerned about the fact that Reagan meets the press so rarely. "Almost every other day, we ask about a press conference," said Helen Thomas, UPI's chief White House correspondent. "It's an abysmal record," she said, noting there have only been two full-fledged news conferences this year.
"I think it's the White House's fault," said Wallace of NBC. "They told us before that the president wasn't going to answer any questions. I have to say something provocative enough to get a response. All the president had to do was point his finger at one reporter and say, 'You're on.' It would all stop.
"This way you're put in a position of either asking a question or just ceding your place to the competition," Wallace said.
"This only happens because of the situation in which we find ourselves," said Plante, noting that Secretary of State George P. Shultz takes questions and "controls the game.
"Ronald Reagan declines to do that," Plante added. "Some people in the West Wing are amused by how stupid we look when we do that. There's always been some question about whether the president feels that way."
"They may try to throw off all kinds of blame on the system, but in reality they were on live and they were just trying to shout each other down to get on television," Fitzwater said. "The irony is that the president was prepared to answer the very questions they were asking."