Media on the warpath?

January 21, 1994|By Tom Baxter

OFFICIAL Washington has always had an edgy relationship with the media that covers it. Lately, though, things have taken a strange turn.

The journalists and politicians who live along the Potomac have been saying nasty things about each other since the days of Thomas Jefferson. Always before, however, there has been an unspoken understanding that neither group could get along without the other.

In modern times, this relationship has taken on aspects of a game both sides know how to play, like the old cartoon about the sheepdog and the wolf who fight all day and get along famously after hours. Sometimes real friendships develop, as has been the case with William Safire and Bert Lance since Mr. Safire won a Pulitzer Prize covering the Lance banking story.

But something in recent months has changed the game. In a series of outbursts -- most recently Adm. Bobby Inman's spectacular self-ejection from a near-certain Cabinet confirmation -- the politicos have been announcing they don't want to play by the old rules.

This has left the Washington media wondering, like a pack of disoriented sheepdogs, what it is they've done wrong.

Bill Clinton is partly to blame for this. His distaste for the Washington media, which boiled to the surface during his pre-Christmas interview with Rolling Stone's William Greider, apparently is genuine. In private staff meetings, Mr. Clinton is said to have gone on at length about his bitterness over the way his administration has been treated.

This is no different from how George Bush felt, and if Mr. Clinton related to reporters with the same icy, patrician disdain, nothing would have changed. No matter how much he loathes the prospect, however, Mr. Clinton's conception of how to connect with the American public demands that he expose himself to the media as no previous president has felt necessary.

This means the standard for media relations is set by episodes like the European summit trip, on which Mr. Clinton gave unprecedented access to ABC's "Nightline" program, while occasionally throwing tantrums at the questions he was asked.

If Mr. Clinton is the pace-setter, he is certainly not alone. Even North Carolina Rep. Alex McMillan, a quiet, non-controversial Republican who was never the subject of any truly damaging stories, felt compelled last month to retire with a bitter denunciation of the increasingly intrusive media.

Then there is Admiral Inman, who accepted the Clinton nomination to be defense chief by announcing he had voted for (( Mr. Bush, then pulled out after riling two people -- Mr. Safire and Sen. Bob Dole.

Admiral Inman began Tuesday charging Mr. Safire and Senator Dole of a cabal against him and ended it on "Nightline," backing away from the charge. He acknowledged at his press conference that he had "not whipped up a great appetite" for the duties of defense secretary, and as the day wore on, it seemed increasingly clear this was his real reason for quitting and that the supposed conspiracy against him was, as Mr. Dole #i described it, "a weak excuse."

Yet Admiral Inman felt compelled to blast a "new McCarthyism," dressing his personal feud up as a larger battle. It fit perfectly with the new, more antagonistic spirit of the times, but it was enough to make an old sheepdog lower his head in confusion and dismay.

Tom Baxter is chief political writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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