Inman Was Right

January 30, 1994|By FRANK STARR

Wait, wait!

Yes, Bobby Ray Inman's recent press conference in Austin was bizarre. Yes, he did seem excessively suspicious of his critics' motives, even paranoid. Yes, as Bob Dole suggested, former Admiral Inman should not be secretary of defense if he has such fantasies.

And certainly, if he cannot take the heat of press scrutiny he should stay out of the kitchen of public service.

Moreover, the president has found a new, if again reluctant, candidate for the job in William J. Perry, and Admiral Inman can return to relative anonymity secure in the knowledge, as he said, that "no future president will ask me to take a Cabinet job."

But wait. Before Admiral Inman fades from our scope, let us not allow the mystifying nature of his performance in Austin to obscure the validity of his point.

What he was saying about the major news organizations operating in Washington was very close to the mark, so close that it made some capital news people distinctly uncomfortable.

He said that the aggressive pursuit of damaging background information about public figures had gone beyond serving a valuable public purpose, when seen from the middle of the country. He said that it made public service an unattractive option to many qualified people. And he said that media people are unwilling to accept or even hear this criticism of their work.

From the vantage point of Austin, Texas, he found, people just didn't care about sometimes convoluted events that reporters tell us are improprieties. More importantly, they do not feel that this press aggressiveness represents their interest.

And sure enough, on Sunday Sam Donaldson, on ABC's David Brinkley show, demonstrated Admiral Inman's point. Mr. Donaldson refused even to entertain the thought that the press may deserve some criticism. "To say that the press drove Admiral Inman, this four-star admiral, from this position is lud-i-crous," he said, drawing out the word.

Then Mr. Donaldson added that "some elements of the press" are even suggesting that Admiral Inman had a valid point about the press. "That is also lud-i-crous," said he, "and any reporters who engage in that ought to go into filling teeth as dentists."

My two years away from Washington news writing, much of it spent running community newspapers in Iowa, tell me that our unwillingness to hear Admiral Inman's point is damaging our standing with the public. Our arrogance and self-righteousness are the main causes of the press' decline in prestige and credibility, when you get away from big coastal cities. Readers I talk to on the farms and in the small towns of the Midwest don't care half as much as Washington reporters think they do about urgently shouted questions on obscure personal histories.

Admiral Inman's characterization of his treatment by columnist William Safire as "a new McCarthyism" may have been excessive. But the herding instinct of many Washington reporters routinely includes a barely concealed desire to affect the news, to be part of it, not simply to record it reliably with necessary context or -- in the case of a columnist -- to comment on it.

There remain reporters and editors with a strong sense of fairness whose coverage, even Admiral Inman was quick to say, was beyond reproach, if not always flattering.

But Admiral Inman made a constructive proposal that deserves attention. He pointed out that the coverage of him by "working reporters" had been fair and that his quarrel was with opinion writers.

In that context, he asked newspaper publishers to consider allowing a public figure who is being criticized an opportunity to prepare a response that would be printed on the same page as the critical story or column. This, he suggested, would be fairer than waiting for a correction that appears on page three several days later or a letter to the editor that may never appear.

It used to be a non-negotiable rule of editors that a person about whom a negative story was being written must be given an opportunity to tell his or her side of the story -- in the same story. Admiral Inman isn't even asking for that. Is his idea "lud-i-crous"?

No, but it might be impractical. On a daily newspaper, it is often 4 or 5 o'clock in the evening before a columnist or op-ed page editor knows what will be used in the next day's paper. Two hours later, the page will be closed. It may simply not be possible to give a public figure fair notice and enough time to prepare a response for the same day's paper.

But that does not prohibit a good-faith effort on the part of the paper to resolve Admiral Inman's legitimate fairness issue. For example, an op-ed page article written by the public figure almost certainly could be printed in a day or two.

A good newspaper might well do a separate story examining a suggestion by a public figure arising out of an event like Admiral Inman's withdrawal of his candidacy for the Cabinet job. But news organizations do not do a very good job of covering themselves, and they are especially uneasy examining criticism of their work.

The public's respect for them as an institution might be very much improved if they seemed less thin-skinned.

Frank Starr has been Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun. He is now a co-owner of three weekly newspapers in northwest Iowa.

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