WASHINGTON — Washington.--The complaint is a familiar one to family counselors: ''My wife [or husband] doesn't understand me.'' Now some members of the press are mouthing a similar lament because of their fractured relations with the public.
At a National Press Club luncheon, CNN's Peter Arnett, who was criticized by some and praised by others for his reporting from Baghdad during the Gulf War, said, ''I don't think the U.S. public really has a real concept of what the press does.''
The problem is that the public, indeed, has a very real concept of what the press does -- and large numbers of people don't like it.
A new Times Mirror survey reveals widespread approval for the way journalists covered the war, but 83 percent of those interviewed favored military censorship of the media, a figure that suggests most of the public believes the press cannot be allowed to roam about unleashed.
Why do so many Americans distrust the press? It is because they perceive, correctly I think, that most journalists are not only marching to a different ideological drummer, they're marching in a different parade -- one headed in the opposite direction from where a majority of Americans think the country should go.
Consider several examples. Concerning the war coverage, reporters frequently got away with contradictory and unsubstantiated assertions. The BBC's Jeremy Bowen said on ''NBC News at Sunrise'' on March 8: ''The message that came from them very strongly in Baghdad was that they're pretty sick of Saddam Hussein. They don't like what he's done to their country, and they'd like to be rid of him.''
Yet, three weeks earlier, Mr. Bowen reported on ''NBC Nightly News'': ''But the air war itself, as it goes on, has shown no sign of diminishing Saddam's support here. . . . All the people that we talk to with the television cameras say that the continuing air attacks have in fact strengthened their desire, their will to resist the allied coalition.''
Betsy Aaron told the ''CBS Evening News'' on March 7: ''The one thing people have to know is that this man privately, Saddam Hussein, is a hated man.'' But on the same program February 27 she had said: ''With their city in ruins, what is left on the street is pride . . . . The average citizen here is confused by the politics swirling around him. He thinks the Iraqi government has made every concession it can make for a peace with honor. He believes Iraq is due at least that, and tonight, this [bombing] is what the allies have to say to the Iraqis.''
The public's distrust of the press goes beyond the flip-flopping war coverage and beyond the usually unnamed sources and generalizations that mask editorial comment. If you ask press critics, as I often do, what they don't like about ''the media,'' you almost always hear that they rarely see their own views and values represented.
These critics may see proof that the press does not reflect their values in recent decisions by the Everett (Wash.) Herald and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune to publish homosexual ''bonding'' announcements along with those of weddings. Both papers have eliminated wedding pages, which will now be designated ''bonding'' or ''celebration'' pages. Newspaper readers might tolerate separate designations for weddings and ''bondings,'' but see their equation as promoting relationships many find unacceptable.
Critics find it hypocritical for a lesbian employee of the Star-Tribune to successfully lobby for the ''celebration'' page while a pro-life editor and reporter for the Fairfield (Iowa) Daily Ledger are fired for their political activities after hours.
There is a lack of understanding between press and public, but it is not the public that has failed to understand the press. Any other product which had such high disapproval ratings would change its content or its sales approach.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.