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Pressing a point: journalist defends media fairness

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The War Against the Press, by Peter Stoler. New York: Dodd, Mead. 226 pp. $17.95 Peter Stoler is an angry man. Over the last decade he has seen his profession - journalism - tumble from its heady, even sanctified, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate status as watchdog of liberty and guardian of public interest, to the state of seige in which it finds itself today, perceived as a calling fraught with seaminess and an almost absolute absence of scruples.

Stoler is angry at the shoot-the-messenger naivet'e that blames newsmen for the bad news they report. He is angry at the Reagan administration for systematically closing off reporters' access to government personnel and documents. He is angry at the right-wing zealots who promulgate the thesis that the nation's press is a pernicious institution, consciously and actively working to undermine American values and ideals.

It is time for the press to fight back, says Stoler, a senior correspondent for Time. His clarion call is this passionate book, which breaks little new ground but nonetheless stands as an exellent primer on the state of American journalism in the last years of the 1980s.

Like the railroads and the steel industry in times past, the press today is monolithic in nature - large, foreboding, powerful; and the differences between competing organizations are far more difficult to detect than the similarities. Americans by nature don't like such monoliths. Some papers have fanned the flames of this mistrust by egregiously purveying either wholesale or partial fiction: Janet Cooke's invention of the eight-year-old heroin addict, ``Jimmy,'' in the Washington Post; Michael Daly making up names and altering facts in order to convey ``a larger truth'' in his dispatches from Northern Ireland for the New York Daily News.

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